- Abbott took VIP flight to birthday bash
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Just days after delivering last year's deeply unpopular federal budget, Treasurer Joe Hockey billed taxpayers more than $20,000 for a series of VIP flights to spruik his economic plan to the Liberal Party faithful.
But Mr Hockey's office has said the 24 hours of travel – to address a lavish Liberal fundraiser in Melbourne and a Liberal National Party gathering in Brisbane – was fully in line with guidelines and entitlements.
Mr Hockey took 11 of his federal Coalition colleagues, plus staff, on the government's 737 business jet from Canberra to Melbourne on the evening of May 15 last year, shortly after Opposition Leader Bill Shorten delivered his budget reply speech to the Parliament.
The cost of the flight was $2640, in addition to the usual operating costs of the RAAF's so-called special purpose aircraft. The plane returned to Canberra empty at a further cost of $2310 the same night.
The main purpose of the trip was a breakfast speech Mr Hockey delivered to the Higgins 200 Club, one of the Liberals' most successful fundraising groups. The club was set up to support the member for the safe Liberal seat of Higgins, currently occupied by rising star Kelly O'Dwyer.
Mr Hockey told the 850-strong gathering that the budget was "right for the nation" and "right for the Australian people".
Mr Hockey's office told Fairfax Media he used the VIP jet because he was required to attend Mr Shorten's evening speech, and had media commitments afterwards, and was therefore "unable to catch a commercial flight that evening to Melbourne". The office said the breakfast was an open event, with school groups and media. Mr Hockey also had a meeting with the Victorian treasurer.
Mr Hockey's office also pointed out Liberal treasurers and shadow treasurers have attended the breakfast every year for the last 19 years. Mr Hockey is scheduled to address the club after this year's budget.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott was hit by revelations on Tuesday he used a taxpayer-funded jet to attend a lavish birthday party in Melbourne for Liberal Party donor Paul Marks on Sunday.
Mr Marks personally donated $250,000 to the Liberal Party in the 2013/14 financial year, while his company donated $500,000.
After the Higgins speech, Mr Hockey and his staff took another VIP jet – a smaller Challenger 604 - from Melbourne to Brisbane. The jet was pre-positioned in Melbourne at a cost of $3300, the cost of the flight itself was $6270 and the plane returned to Canberra empty at a cost of $5610.
That means the cost of getting Mr Hockey and five of his colleagues from Melbourne to Brisbane was $15,180. The total for the two stops was $20,130, in addition to usual operating costs.
Mr Hockey told the 850-strong gathering that the budget was 'right for the nation' and 'right for the Australian people'.
Mr Hockey's office did not provide an explanation as to why he was unable to fly commercially from Melbourne to Brisbane.
In Brisbane, Mr Hockey gave a speech to the Queensland LNP in which he declared the budget was "based on a set of values that I think embody the very best of the Australian community". He also met the Queensland treasurer and did some media interviews.
Mr Hockey also claimed $1400 for return flights, travel allowances and comcars.
All the VIP flights were approved by the former defence minister, David Johnston. According to the guidelines for the use of the RAAF's VIP planes, the approving authority is required to consider "the availability of flights on major domestic airlines".
The Challenger aircraft has a crew of three and carries nine people. The 737 jets have a crew of up to six and are capable of carrying 30 passengers.
"The cost of the Treasurer's travel was within guidelines and entitlements," a spokesperson for Mr Hockey said.
A spokesman for Mr Abbott said the Prime Minister had "other work related engagements" in Melbourne on Sunday but did not specify what they involved.
"All travel was undertaken within the rules," he said.
Labor MP Pat Conroy, who chairs the party's Waste Watch committee, said Mr Abbott's flight was an "appalling look" and demanded the Prime Minister detail his work commitments or have the Liberal Party repay the cost of the VIP flight. The VIP jets can cost about $4000 an hour to operate.
It's not the first time Mr Abbott's use of the VIP jet has come under fire. When the Prime Minister showed up late to a partyroom meeting last year he admitted to an angry backbencher that he was delayed by a press conference scheduled to justify attending an interstate fundraiser the night before.