Joel's junkets

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Joel FitzgibbonJunkets, that is gifts over and above normal professional entitlements, are a widespread practice in the community. They are not restricted to politicians but are also common among academics, journalists, the business community and the professions.

The undeclared acceptance by the Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, while he was in Opposition, of two free trips to China that were paid for by his Chinese-Australian friend, Ms Helen Liu, has raised eyebrows. Critics firmly believe that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that anyone who accepts a junket, even publicly declared, remains in debt to the donor. Some claim that the donor always expects a return on their investment.

Fitzgibbon's controversial trips have had the unintended consequence of revealing how common such junkets are. The media has reported that 61 MPs, from all parties, have accepted such trips since the November 2007 federal election. The most common destinations predictably are China, Israel, Taiwan and the USA. There have been 109 occasions in all, with one MP having undertaken a remarkable 13 free trips.

Such trips undoubtedly bring considerable legitimate benefits. Junkets, like official parliamentary study tours, benefit the national interest as well as the individual by improving the quality of parliamentary deliberations.

We should all want parliamentary discussion to be as educated as possible. No one should want our affairs in the hands of parochial MPs who have scarcely set foot outside Australia. Better-informed MPs mean better debate in the parliament and in the respective party rooms. Those MPs, like Fitzgibbon, who later become ministers will also have benefitted from such prior education.

There are dangers in such free lunches, however. Public discussion often concentrates on the potential for corruption or even, in Fitzgibbon's case, security breaches, but outright corruption is extremely rare. Other issues should not be neglected.

The first of these is bias. The free trips are not spread around equally between destinations. They are largely offered by bigger, wealthier countries. To be balanced the destinations should also include poorer, countries that cannot afford to be sponsoring free trips for MPs. Junkets can contribute to lop-sided debates. Where is the sense in over half of the trips being to just four countries?

The second is CV-building among backbench MPs. CVs inflated by overseas trips can be used both inside and outside politics. Inside parliament the overseas trips build the case for a promotion to the ministry by showing that the MP is a cosmopolitan, educated person who could handle a prized portfolio with an international dimension. The overseas trips also lead to connections that prove valuable after retirement from politics. The revolving-door syndrome from politics to the private sector is dangerous.

The third is that the generosity of the donor may be abused by an MP who treats the trip as no more than a holiday for themselves and, sometimes, for a partner too. Such trips are junkets in the worst sense of the word. Such tripping around not only doesn't benefit the national interest but actually short-changes their local electorate.

As Senator Nick Xenophon has suggested, it would be a  good idea to increase the transparency of the whole system beyond the current requirements of the Register of Pecuniary Interests. A detailed report of the trip should, as Xenophon suggests, be placed on the parliamentary web site within 60 days. It is a pity that, like all such regulation, this will lead to increased paperwork for all concerned.

The best protection for the national interest, however, as also in the case of the regulation of lobbying and political donations, lies in personal integrity and intelligence. MPs must have not only high ethical standards but also the clear-minded sophistication to sniff out propaganda and to avoid being seduced by the blandishments offered.

Fitzgibbon's free trips don't worry me when taken in isolation. But wise politicians avoid multiple entanglements. Lobbying, political donations and junkets become dangerous when they accumulate. The notorious lobbyist Brian Burke often followed up his lobbying with political donations. Fitzgibbon has accepted from Ms Liu, his landlord in Canberra, not just junkets but also regular election donations.

Whether or not she also lobbies him, the whole package suggests that Fitzgibbon has been unwise.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst, a columnist with the Canberra Times, is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University

Topic tags: john warhurst, junket, defence minister, joel fitzgibbon, free trip to china, brian burke, Helen Liu

 

 

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John Warhurst say junkets , while possibly providing education, are prone to the abuses of and bias, self promotion, pleasure, propoganda and the entanglements of selective poliitical donations. The ledger is definitely lop-sided.
Elizabeth Clarke | 14 April 2009


"No one should want our affairs in the hands of parochial MPs who have scarcely set foot outside Australia. Better-informed MPs mean better debate in the parliament and in the respective party rooms."

Hmmm. Up to a point. Two phrases come to mind on reading this: "duchessing" and "Potemkin vilages".
Tom Round | 14 April 2009


'No one should want our affairs in the hands of parochial MPs who have scarcely set foot outside Australia. Better-informed MPs mean better debate in the parliament and in the respective party rooms.'

Hmmm. Up to a point. Two phrases come to mind on reading this: 'duchessing' and 'Potemkin vilages'.
Tom Round | 14 April 2009


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