The Australian government shelled out more than $11,000 a day on flights as the former finance minister Mathias Cormann spent a month crisscrossing Europe and South America to drum up support for his successful bid to lead the OECD.
The flights aboard a Royal Australian Air Force special purpose aircraft over the course of 34 days cost a total of $380,000, Guardian Australia can reveal after analysing the defence department’s quietly released flight records.
The records confirm that a Dassault Falcon 7X flew out of Canberra on 7 November and picked up Cormann the following day in Perth before heading towards Europe via the Maldives and Oman.
The RAAF plane flew to Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Hungary and France, the latter being the headquarters of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the place where formal interviews were done with candidates for secretary general.
By 3 December, the running tally of Cormann’s flight costs had reached $156,277.
The former minister then travelled from Geneva to Colombia via Sao Miguel, an island in the Atlantic Ocean. After meetings in Colombia and Chile, he flew briefly to Mexico before heading to Canberra via Hawaii.
The RAAF plane took Cormann from Canberra to his home city of Perth on 10 December, before the aircraft returned to Australia’s capital city the same day.
The total costs reported by the defence department associated with the above flights were $379,463 – or $11,160 a day of the 34-day journey.
The full cost to the Australian government of the lobbying effort is likely to have been much higher, given that these expenses relate only to the flights and not accommodation.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also set up a campaign taskforce of 8.5 full-time-equivalent staff to support Cormann’s candidacy. The effort would have also involved diplomats at Australia’s embassies and high commissions.
The government had not previously answered direct questions about the cost of Cormann’s campaign.
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The new figures are drawn from a document disclosing all special purpose aircraft flights – including by the prime minister, the governor general and cabinet ministers – for the period 1 July 2020 to 31 December 2020.
The document was tabled in parliament without fanfare late last month and has not yet been added to the defence department’s publications page.
The government has previously defended the all-out effort to back in Cormann’s candidacy, arguing that the 38-member organisation played an important role in shaping global rules, and Australia needed to step forward and offer candidates “if we want international institutions such as the OECD to thrive”.
The extent of Cormann’s travel caused domestic political controversy last year, given the estimated significant expense and the fact that thousands of Australians were struggling to return home from overseas because of strict caps on international flight arrivals.
Labor had offered bipartisan support to Cormann’s candidacy but had questioned the use of an RAAF aircraft, suggesting the government should have looked at much less costly virtual campaign options.
It is understood the government placed a priority on in-person meetings and formed the view that Cormann wouldn’t have been able to fit in as many engagements if he had travelled commercially.
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The prime minister, Scott Morrison, argued that the RAAF jet was needed because Covid was “running rampant in Europe”.
“I mean, if Mathias was flying around on commercial planes, he would have got Covid,” Morrison said in late November.
Cormann tested negative to Covid-19 seven times during his month of travel in Europe and South America, and then quarantined in a Western Australian police-approved residence, from which he continued to make campaign-related calls.
Morrison and the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, also made calls to dozens of their counterparts to reinforce Cormann’s campaign to lead the Paris-based organisation, which gives advice to developed nations on economic trends, taxation, inequality, trade and fighting corruption.
There was intense focus during the campaign on Australia’s climate record and Cormann’s past comments as a senior Coalition minister, but Cormann assured OECD members he was committed to action on the issue.
He defeated the Swedish former EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström in the final round of consultations with OECD members in March.