31 May 2024

Are public servants bigwigs getting their just desserts for dining out at taxpayers' expense?

| Chris Johnson
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Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie gave the CEO of Airservices Australia a grilling over dining out on the taxpayer. Photo: File.

If you’re a senior public servant dining out on the public purse, you can expect that it’ll be raised in Budget Estimates – and talked about at length.

That’s exactly what happened this week when Airservices Australia boss Jason Harfield faced a grilling over a wine and dine fest for himself and 10 of his organisation’s officials, totalling close to $2000.

These were all highly paid executives being entertained by the chief executive officer, who was happy for the taxpayer to foot the bill.

It was, after all, after a monthly managers meeting with bosses flown in from around the country.

These executives all earn above $400,000 a year, a couple of them on more than half a million dollars, and Mr Harfield himself is on an annual remuneration package twice that amount.

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Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie feigned outrage at the $1889 tab from a Canberra restaurant she pointedly did not want to name and “promote” (maybe it’s one of her favourite haunts, but it’s since been reported as Mezzalira in Civic).

“Eleven people earning over $400,000 a year having a free dinner,” she said in the CEO’s direction.

“Thanks to the taxpayer.”

Mr Harfield confirmed the dinner and amount, noting that alcohol was involved, which was likely why the bill was so high.

“This isn’t something you do after every management meeting, is it?” asked Senator McKenzie.

The CEO replied that there would usually be some sort of dinner for all the managers if they were in town.

The indignant senator referred to credit card charges for the night out, showing one payment of $687, with the other at $1202.

These were obtained under Freedom of Information laws.

All the embarrassed Mr Harfield could do was mutter something about the most senior officer in the room being the one who usually got stuck with having to put such dinner payments on their (government-issued) corporate card. In this case, it was him.

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In February, Education Department Secretary Tony Cook copped a similar basting in Senate Estimates at the hands of Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson.

That was over a bill of $1209 when the taxpayer shouted members of the National Research Infrastructure Advisory Group to a fun night out at Canberra’s Courgette restaurant.

Mr Cook all but apologised and noted he had already been questioned about the dinner by Education Minister Jason Clare as the matter had been raised during estimates in October last year.

“We now have limits on the expenditure that is allowed to be made,” the Secretary said in February, following a thorough dressing down from Senator Henderson.

“I think we have let the taxpayers down in terms of what they would expect from public servants,” he said.

That’s three times in the past three sessions of Senate Estimates – October last year, February this year and the current week of Budget Estimates – where senior public servants dining out at fancy restaurants have been the subject of tough lines of questioning from outraged Coalition senators.

With further questions over taxpayer-funded nights out certain to be in the pipeline, there are quite a few more public service bosses who are nervous about their own upcoming appearances before senate estimate committees.

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ChrisinTurner2:53 pm 03 Jun 24

I didn’t think Air Services received any funding from taxpayers, being a GBE.

CraigFromCurtin8:24 pm 06 Jun 24

Hi Chris. I used to work for ASA and you’re right – all funding comes from aircraft operators. However, ASA is fully owned by the Australian Government and as such all surplus funds (less the cost of fancy dinners) goes to consolidated revenue.

Those senior public servants should be bound by the same allowance restrictions as any public service member traveling for work.

There is nothing wrong about nice sandwiches and probably better health wise. That is what I was usually given at work meetings, even though they were being provided by large private enterprise businesses.

Capital Retro8:37 am 03 Jun 24

I’ve never tried an organic mung bean sanger with bread baked by renewable energy.

HiddenDragon7:45 pm 01 Jun 24

Australia has some of the most overpaid public officials, populating some of the most ridiculously top-heavy bureaucracies, in the western world, with no obvious (positive) correlation between the generosity of the remuneration packages and perks and the quality and timeliness of what is being delivered to the public and the government of the day.

Taxpayer-funded gourmandising by public officials should cease forthwith and there should be a clear direction to that effect from the PM.

Canberrans who are inclined to excuse and defend these indulgent practices (and not just because they dislike the politician who has raised the issue) might want to reflect on whether the contempt and hostility which is directed towards Canberra is all the fault of the politicians who the rest of the country sends here.

Charlie Fair4:38 pm 01 Jun 24

I wonder if the senior public servants also drew travelling allowances, which included an allocation for an evening meal. If so what happened to that allowance? Returned to the public purse or pocketed by the public servants?

This spot on , any public servants earning over 300k should not be allowed to claim a meal on the tax payer. This common practice for the upper management to claim they working through lunch so tgere meeting should be catered

Wow – lets justs reflect on this “It then emerged Senator McKenzie failed to publicly declare she was a member of a Wangaratta shooting club for which she approved a $36,000 grant. Numerous other grants went to organisations of which other Coalition MPs are members or patrons.

And of the 684 grants approved by Senator McKenzie, 61 per cent were not among those ranked most deserving under the Sport Australia process. At the same time, almost 1400 other applicants missed out.?

Hmmmm, looking at Ms McKenzie’s Wikipedia page and reading about the Sports rorts and other humorous activities she has engaged, it occurs she may not be best placed to cast stones.

In the interest of fairness, and to be open and transparent, can we also get figures on how many times politicians have had free meals at the expense of the taxpayers?

If you received a dollar for every time that happens, you would be a multi millionaire

I’d wager that with politicians, it’s not so much the taxpayer footing the bill but rather it’s the various lobbyists and industry people who’d be paying.

Do you remember Minister Michelle Rowland’s birthday lunch hosted by gambling lobby executives at one of Melbourne’s premier restaurants?

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