The Canberra Airport is astonishingly grand given it serves a city of just over 400,000 people. Yes, it's now an "international" airport - and it sure looks the part - but let's not pretend Terry Snow's riches are built on the ACT being the gateway to Singapore, or the Middle East, or wherever.
Nor is the airport one of Snow's philanthropic projects. It's built on public money: bureaucrats and military personnel flying to meetings, and probably flying to meetings far too often. Hence its weird ads spruiking warplanes rather than the luxury cars and perfumes that other airports flog.
I'm not demanding that public servants stop travelling. I'll leave that stupidity to a Sydney newspaper that excels in it.
But many public servants don't want to fly. And, bizarrely, some of them encounter resistance when they ask to spend less, and pollute less, by travelling by bus instead.
This is especially so for travel between Canberra and Sydney. If you're heading to western Sydney, you'll get there just as quickly if you catch a coach from the Jolimont. If you're heading to the CBD, a plane might save you an hour (at the very best) from go to whoa, but it'll also cost taxpayers several hundred dollars extra. Not to mention you can get more work done on the coach than while shuffling continually between taxis, airports, security checks, lounges and planes.
Yet one cannot book a coach trip through the whole-of-government travel portal, even though the very point of it is to save money. Several public servants told me recently what happened when they asked to get to Sydney via other means. One had to write a detailed (multi-page) minute explaining why taking the bus was more beneficial. Another was told angrily: "No, it's a hassle." A third was told her colleagues preferred flying so she needed to fly, too.
Last decade, when the Finance Department tried to crack down on some of the excesses of government travel, it specifically targeted the Canberra-Sydney route. The worst offender was Defence, which effectively ignored Finance's exhortations to consider alternatives. As a Finance employee told me at the time: "Defence always get its way."
A few years later, the Gillard government got tougher: it removed public servants' ability to accrue airline loyalty points for work trips and introduced a "lowest practical fare" policy (which is often ignored). But the government left one perverse incentive in place: staff still accrue status credits when they fly for work, which means that, by choosing to fly, they gain a material personal benefit.
I asked Finance last month why it overlooked status credits during its earlier reforms. It pointed out that one of the benefits of higher airline status - increased baggage allowance - "can reduce the Commonwealth's travel costs". Hmm. The same logic could apply to loyalty points, of course, but everyone knows they were used for personal, not public, benefit, which is why they were banned.
The government's travel budget finally began to shrink somewhat under the Gillard and later governments, no doubt helped along by jacked-up efficiency dividends. But the number of Canberra-Sydney flights is actually increasing - the government buys more than 50,000 return tickets a year. A single one of those tickets represents more carbon pollution (about 300 kilograms) than many people in the world create over an entire year.
Meanwhile, almost all other industries use video-conferencing extensively, a technology that is essentially free and works brilliantly.
There are, of course, genuine intangible benefits of working with people face-to-face. But these benefits can also be overstated. Perhaps removing the lure of status credits would be another small step towards rational, responsible and climate-wise travel decisions.
- Markus Mannheim is a Canberra writer and data-wrangler. mannheim.media