The Labor Government abandons transparency around Air Force VIP Flights, forgetting past lessons. Rex Patrick on Defence Minister Richard Marles blindly touting ‘security advice’ to keep secret things which can be googled.
It was a classic political scandal cycle playing out in Parliament on Wednesday. A playbook that starts with (1) secrecy, (2) then someone utilises the secrecy to gain advantage, (3) the scuttlebutt starts, (4) the cover-up ensues, (5) the political investigation occurs, (6) the scandal plays out, (7) transparency is ordered, (8) memories fade, and finally, back to the start.
We’ve been here before too many times – with travel rorts, big whiteboards and colour-coded electoral spreadsheets. And VIP flights.
The Morrison Government stopped publishing VIP flight details, ending decades of routine transparency
The VIP affair,1965-68
In 1965, Labor opposition leader Arthur Calwell sought and obtained approval from the then Liberal-Country Party Government to take an Air Force VIP flight to an ALP conference in Perth. He took two Labor Party officials with him: Cyril Wyndham, the Federal Secretary, and Bill Hartley, the hard-left State Secretary of the Victorian branch.
When news of this leaked out, Democratic Labor Party Senator Vince Gair and Labor House backbencher Fred Daly sought to obtain official confirmation by asking questions on-notice in their respective houses. Daly had had a big quarrel with Calwell and wanted to embarrass his leader by showing he was beholden to the left.
Time passed by without the questions being answered, during which time Daly patched up his quarrel with Calwell and told then Prime Minister Harold Holt that he shouldn’t be too concerned about how he answered the questions.
The Liberal Government, having just spent $21.6 million on a new VIP fleet, really didn’t want to answer any questions on VIP flights. Holt feared that public opinion, primed by prejudiced journalists and by envious politicians who did not qualify for VIP flights, would come to regard them as an expensive and abused luxury. He took over responsibility for answering questions about them.
On 13 May 1966, Holt tabled answers to the Gair/Daly questions, saying, wrongly, that the flight information they sought was “not available.”
Liberal Party is now asking questions in the House about VIP flights taken by Richard Marles, and whether his golf clubs were loaded
Further debate occurred in relation to the VIP fleet, but the tempo of discussion really picked up after photos appeared in the press in February 1967 of the Holt family and former Prime Minister Menzies and his wife using VIP flights to attend a dinner in Canberra. Questions about Prime Minister Holt using VIP flights were asked in both Houses.
The issue came to a head in August through October 1967 with various questions, orders for production and statements, including on revelations that the Treasurer had taken 54 flights largely between Canberra and Sydney over eight months.
The issue was largely diffused on 25 October 1967, just as the Labor Opposition was planning to call the Secretary to the Department of Air to the Bar of the Senate. The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator John Gorton, tabled three flight authorisation books and thirteen sets of passenger manifests in the Senate. The documents revealed Holt had misled the House.
Political turmoil followed in the House, and Holt’s credibility took a heavy hit.
A month later, the Senate, over which the Government already didn’t have control, went to an election where the Government fared poorly, partly on concerns over Holt’s capacity and honesty.
The VIP affair of 2023
Fast forward to September 2023, where history is starting to repeat itself.
The Morrison Government stopped publishing VIP flight details, ending decades of routine transparency with parliamentary and media scrutiny. Precisely what triggered this isn’t clear, but it’s likely that Morrison, whose unhealthy penchant for secrecy is well known, probably felt uncomfortable with scrutiny over who was travelling on VIP flights.
The Defence Department, in consultation with the Department of Finance and the Australian Federal Police, were tasked to conduct a behind-closed-doors review of the ‘Guidelines for the Use of Special Purpose Aircraft’, that include “the scope and method of release of information relating to the use of Special Purpose Aircraft”.
Ironically, the Liberal Party is now asking questions in the House about VIP flights (that pretentious name was long abandoned and replaced with ‘Special Purpose Flights’) taken by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Richard Marles, and whether his golf clubs were loaded into the cargo hold.
There’s action in the Senate too, with two orders for production of documents being issued on Tuesday this week in relation to Special Purpose Flights.
With the review having concluded, the Defence Minister is now disclosing data around special purpose flights again, but it’s aggregate data. It doesn’t include any actual information about flights. No time, date, departure or arrival location information. No passenger details.
All the things necessary to conduct oversight are missing. All the things necessary to deter misuse are missing.
In over 50 years, the release of flight manifests has never been an issue.
No real information has been provided publicly to justify the removal of information, other than stating that the information reveals “pattern of life data”, whatever that really means. No flight time, date, and departure/arrival location is to be revealed, nor passenger information. It’s purportedly security sensitive.
A quick check of Flight Tracker …
However, it isn’t. MWM examined what was in the public domain in relation to a recent special purpose flight round-trip to Western Australia by Prime Minister Albanese. A quick check of Flight Tracker, the PM’s press releases and media articles deliver almost everything that the Defence Minister blindly purports to be sensitive.
Google it, duh
On 27 August, the Prime Minister took an Air Force 737 from Sydney to Karratha.
Albanese’s flight left Sydney at 8:27 am local and arrived in Karratha at 11:27 local. He toured Rio Tinto facilities and did a press conference in relation to the sad news that three US Marines had been killed in the Northern Territory.
He then flew from Karratha to Perth, departing at 2:45 PM local and arriving at 4:35 PM local. Again, as per publicly available flight tracker data.
The PM convened a cabinet meeting in Perth on Monday 28th, and also launched an election style Voice campaign.
On Tuesday 29th he attended a ‘Leadership Matters’ breakfast at Crown Perth before jumping back in his Special Purpose 737 to fly to Adelaide. He departed Perth at 9:45 AM local and arrived in Adelaide at 1:30 PM local.
The next day he attended another Voice function in Elizabeth, to Adelaide’s north. He then headed back to Adelaide airport, departing for Sydney at 1:45 PM local. He made it back to Sydney at 4:40 PM.
Dumb and dumber
When you give a problem to a lawyer, expect litigation. When you give a problem to a salesperson, expect a sale. If you give a problem to a security expert, expect increased security.
It’s plainly dumb that historical flight information should be considered sensitive,
especially when it can be obtained with a $39-dollar annual Flight Tracker subscription.
But here we have a case of dumb and dumber; a dumb security answer presented to a dumber Defence Minister.
The security report that was handed to the Minister “focused only on security considerations surrounding the Special Purpose Aircraft Guidelines and did not address accountability and transparency considerations”. That was the caveat put to the Minister.
Minister Marles didn’t have the common sense to apply a purposive lens to the report and work out what had been proposed to him was security blown all out of proportions that, if implemented, would totally kill off the transparency purposes of the manifest.
He also clearly had no political smarts either, because this is now an issue that will dog the Government in the Parliament for months to come. Freedom of Information requests have already been lodged to challenge the security review outcomes.
Sadly, it reflects on our quality of leadership, or rather lack of quality. It’s the same lack of quality that has given us a $368b AUKUS decision. But at least it puts it beyond all doubt that the Defence Minister is totally captured by his department.
Editor’s Note: anybody who has read this story is now in possession of top secret government information. Should you be apprehended, you may face secret trial for being in possession of sensitive ‘natsec’ data and may also be denied the right to access the prosecution’s evidence.