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Joel's junkets

  • 14 April 2009

Junkets, 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