Patient DFAT officials defend ping-pong diplomacy, yet again

It wouldn't be senate estimates without senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials having to justify the presence of a $6300 ping-pong table in the 'InnovationXchange' ideas hub.

In a seemingly routine attack, Senate Anne McEwan used her allocated time to question senior officials on the need for the table as well as three bean bags costing $590 each.

She also grilled senior officials on on rules about table tennis, what the table was made of, when staff could play and whether staff had to supply their own "shuttlecock and bats".

Last year, Senator Penny Wong also used time in senate estimates to ask about the table.

"How is this ping pong table contributing to the goals and targets of our aid program? Is this ping pong table assisting in the expansion of our diplomatic footprint? …. How much did the ping pong table cost? … are there rules around its use?" she asked.

A patient deputy secretary Ewen McDonald told the senator the table was rarely used for ping-pong and could be converted into a meeting table. He said the staff at the hub worked long hours and often stayed overtime.


"Senator you call it a ping pong table, I call it a meeting table," he said. "It is used all day for meeting and not for ping pong. It is actively used throughout the day and sits 10 or 12 people around it."

First Assistant Secretary Lisa Rauter, head of the specialist unit, said the table was only used for ping-pong occasionally and never during working hours.

The $140 million InnovationXchange agency was established by Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop to disrupt the traditional ways bureaucrats distribute the aid budget.

The few staff within the hub have proposed the trial of passport-less travel and are working on a US$100 million data collection service in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Ms Bishop has previously described the agency as a"gorgeous little funky, hipster, Googly, Facebooky-type place".

Senator McEwan seemed surprised the department was able to spend more than $1500 on three bean bags, directing them to a website that sold them for considerably less.

"Having done a little bit of research about the cost of bean bags I found it quite difficult to find one that cost more than $200," she said.

Department secretary Peter Varghese, who was surprised by the attention placed on the furnishing, said the cost of three bean bags was cheaper than a couch.

"They were commercial quality bean bags sourced from an Australian supplier who source all of their products through sustainable and social impact sources," said Ms Rauter.

"Australian designed and supplied tends to be more expensive than cheaper overseas sourced products and it is also of commercial quality."

DFAT officials told senators InnovationXchange was furnished for less than any other area of the department per square metre.