New figures have provided a glimpse into the disparity of the cost of funded "working lunches" through the public service.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment spent $1.15 million on more than 600 events and lunches, including $467,000 on "light refreshments" and "working meals", for staff between July 2019 and September 2020.
Labor is asking each department how much they spent on functions and outings over the 14-month period. Some would provide only a headline figure, and others felt it too onerous to answer at all, but the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment gave relatively detailed information, giving a glimpse into the costs - and some of the disparities.
The Department of Defence said it spent about $1.3 million over the course of the months on events focusing on military commemoration, ministerial, international, industry or community engagement and civilian celebration.
Home Affairs and the intelligence agencies that fall under it spent $286,500 on dinners and functions over the year, while the events bill over at the Veterans' Affairs department tallied up to about $47,000.
Between March 2020 and September 2020, the Department of Health said it and all its agencies only held two events over the period, costing $7500. That was in the midst of COVID lockdowns. Similarly, the education department hosted just two career fairs, which cost $123,000.
Treasury refused to provide a list of its functions, calling the request an "unreasonable" diversion of department resources. It, however, outlined the expenditure for agencies within the portfolio, which totalled nearly $700,000.
The Agriculture department, formed following an early 2020 merger of government agencies, released a detailed list of its hospitality expenditure in response to Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching's questions on notice.
Among the events held were more than 200 including "light refreshments" where the average cost per head reached up to $525, as well as nearly 70 "working meals", jumping up to $290 a head.
On the opposite end, some of the light refreshments and working meals recorded totalled just 68c and $2.50 per head respectively.
One working meal held at the Shangri-La Hotel in Sydney in July 2019 between three federal officials and 17 state and territory officials cost the public purse $5791, totalling about $290 per head.
Another working meal at the Hilton Adelaide between two department officials and 22 state and territory employees came with a bill totalling $299.55 a head, or nearly $7200.
A September 2019 event at Sydney's Masonic Centre and marked under "light refreshments" was attended by eight government officials and 28 other non-government attendees, costing a total of $5676. It equated to a price tag of $157.67 per attendee.
Light refreshments at various venues across Australia held on July 4, 2019 with a total of 48 attendees cost a total of $25,200, equating to more than $500 per person. It's not clear what the events were held for.
Canberra's private venues scored big with nearly 60 visits costing $142,000 in taxpayer-funded food and beverages for the department.
The biggest winners included Barton's the Boat House and Hotel Kurrajong, which received a little more than $10,000 each for a total of six department dinners and planning events.
The city's Mezzalira, QT Canberra, Bicicletta and Parlour were also among local venues most frequented by officials, making about $13,600 over 13 visits.
On the other end of the scale, an incoming graduate barbecue in early 2020 with more than 100 attendees cost the department just $340, or around $3.09 a head. A number of other graduate events typically came in under $10 a head.
Events where public servant attendance swelled and the department's Canberra main office resulted in a lower cost per head.
Nearly two-thirds of the 46 "light refreshment" events where the cost per head was $10 or less were held held in the department building with no alcohol served, averaging 46 attendees per event.
The document noted the department could not distinguish the cost between alcohol and food spending across the 44 events where alcohol expenditure was specifically recorded.
A March 2020 event at Parliament House, attended by 196 people including 14 ministers and marked under "light refreshments", cost taxpayersnearly $32,000. Of that amount, $17,250 is featured in the alcohol column with the remainder appearing in the column reserved for costs other than food or alcohol.
A working meal in November 2019 at Ottoman Cuisine in Barton between seven Commonwealth officials and three international delegates costing $800 in total had $700 designated in the alcohol column.
Two separate dinners occurring during an official conference visit to Madrid with Energy Minister Angus Taylor costed nearly $3000. Both totals resided solely in the alcohol column.
The document also noted a number of events were booked during the COVID-19 lockdown but remained listed in the final breakdown where a refund was not given.
Labor's government accountability spokeswomanSenator Kitching, who put the question to the department during Senate estimates, said public money should be spent in a responsible manner.
"Every dollar that the government spends is a taxpayer dollar. The public rightly expects that this be spent in an efficient, transparent and responsible manner," Senator Kitching said.
"When spending taxpayers' money, the government should be the lightest burden it can be.
"While most departments and agencies adhere to this, under Scott Morrison we have unfortunately seen too many cases of profligate spending followed by bungled cover-ups."
An Agriculture department spokesperson said light refreshments were typically characterised as tea, coffee, other non-alcoholic beverages with biscuits and fruits supplied as snacks.
Working lunches, on the other hand, were generally deemed as "basic" and could include sandwiches but no hot food.
The department said its hospitality policy outlined working lunches and meals were "consumed on the department's premises where it is cost effective to continue a meeting over a normal meal break".
It added that it provided advice to its officials on what was considered ethical and that prior approval was required by more senior delegates making restaurant or catering bookings.
The spokesperson said it did not have a dedicated budget for hospitality requirements across the department.
- An earlier version of this story had said the highest cost per head was $709.50 instead of $525 due to a data error.