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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee - 14/02/2012 - Estimates - INFRASTRUCTURE AND TRANSPORT PORTFOLIO - Department of Infrastructure and Transport

Department of Infrastructure and Transport

[09:02]

CHAIR: I now welcome Senator the Hon. Kim Carr, Minister for Manufacturing and Minister for Defence Materiel, representing the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport; Mr Mike Mrdak, Secretary of the Department of Infrastructure and Transport; and officers of the departments. Minister, do you or Mr Mrdak wish to make a brief opening statement?

Senator Carr: I have no further statement at this time.

CHAIR: Mr Mrdak, I look forward to your opening statement.

Mr Mrdak : Chair, in the light of the number of issues the Senate wants to get through, I am happy not to make a statement.

CHAIR: Before I do go questions, may I just remind committee members and senators that we are on an extremely tight timetable today. I intend to run strictly to the time that is on the printed program. If there are employees and officers out there representing senators that do wish to make an appearance today, you are forewarned that if you are not in the room it will not happen and we will finish on time. Secondly, before I go to questions, Senator Joyce, on behalf of the committee, we send our best wishes to the people of St George, your home town, and we wish them all the very best, as we do the rest of Queensland and New South Wales, in these trying times.

Senator JOYCE: I appreciate that.

CHAIR: On that note, we will proceed to questions.

Senator JOYCE: I have a number of questions for ARTC, not so much corporate services. Maybe Senator Williams might want something.

Senator WILLIAMS: Welcome departmental people and Mr Mrdak, it is good to see you. I take you to a point, Mr Mrdak, about travel costs for departmental staff. I refer to the answer provided to question number 28 from the previous estimates, which detailed the travel requirements of departmental staff who accompanied the minister or parliamentary secretary. Can you please advise me of the department's policy in relation to airfare bookings for departmental staff accompanying the minister?

Mr Mrdak : Our policy is as per the normal guidelines for departmental staff, which is that we provide business class travel for senior executive service officers on longer flights and we provide economy travel for all other officers, and we have a system of providing for reasonable payment for accommodation and any other costs involved with travel.

Senator WILLIAMS: What type of accommodation: four star, five star?

Mr Mrdak : We leave it to the discretion of the officers in terms of the type of accommodation that is available in a particular location. We do not set a particular limit, but certainly we do look closely to minimise costs wherever possible.

Senator WILLIAMS: They can choose their own accommodation. There is no limit to the budget as far as—

Mr Mrdak : To a point. It must be within the budget for that area of the department and obviously all expenditure has to be approved and then signed off by the supervisor of the officer travelling.

Senator WILLIAMS: If one of your staff is accompanying a minister and you might go to, say, New York and there is a five-star hotel and the minister might book at that hotel, then your staff would have approval to book into that hotel as well?

Mr Mrdak : Generally, if certain officers are accompanying the minister, they will stay in the same location as the minister.

Senator WILLIAMS: That is logical, is it not, although costly. In relation to a trip on 26 June to 4 July 2011 where you accompanied the minister on a trip to Washington, New York and Los Angeles for a week, the airfares totalled $20,919. That seems high. It was $21,000, basically. Can you provide some explanation for this?

Mr Mrdak : I am happy to seek further details. I think that involved a flight, from memory, to New York via Los Angeles, a Qantas service, and then travel from Washington back to Los Angeles and then back to Australia. I will get some further details but my recollection is there was a Qantas business class service involved.

Senator WILLIAMS: That $21,000 was just for your airfares; almost $21,000? The exact figure was $20,919.86. Was that purely for airfares?

Mr Mrdak : Yes, I think it was.

Senator WILLIAMS: From Sydney to Los Angeles to New York.

Mr Mrdak : It would have been from Canberra to Sydney to New York via Los Angeles. From recollection, the return trip was from Washington to LA to Sydney to Canberra.

Senator WILLIAMS: Was that business class or first class?

Mr Mrdak : Business class, from recollection.

Senator WILLIAMS: That was Canberra-Sydney, Sydney-LA, LA-New York. Can you talk us through: you went Canberra-Sydney, Sydney—

Mr Mrdak : Sydney to New York via LA with the Qantas service that transfers through LAX. From recollection, on that trip we then travelled from New York to Washington by rail, from Washington to Sydney via LA, had some business commitments in LA and then travelled on to Sydney and Canberra.

Senator WILLIAMS: Why would you travel to Washington by rail from New York?

Mr Mrdak : It provides a very convenient service in terms of the hours available and it is a much more convenient way to travel to Washington, I have found, than flying.

Senator WILLIAMS: It would be a lot longer though, would it not, as far as time goes?

Senator Carr: It depends how long you get stuck at the airport.

Mr Mrdak : As the minister says, it does depend on how JFK is or how one of the other New York airports operating at that particular time is. One of the things we were looking at was some of the rail operations in the US at that time. We did have discussions, particularly on transport security, with some of the rail operators. It provided opportunity to do some business as well as travel by rail, which I think was a much more convenient way to travel between New York and Washington.

Senator WILLIAMS: Is the rail fare cheaper than the airfare?

Mr Mrdak : I think is it, but I am happy to check that.

Senator WILLIAMS: Could you break up the details of that fare—each leg—on notice. I would appreciate that. Similarly, could you do that in relation to a trip on 2 to 12 November 2010 on which Ms Lyn O'Connell accompanied the minister to London and Rome and for which airfares totalled $15,808.02. That is almost $16,000 to London and Rome. Can you provide some explanation for those high figures?

Mr Mrdak : Again, I think that reflects a business class airfare to Europe. I will ask Ms O'Connell, who accompanied the minister at that stage.

Ms O'Connell : I was accompanying the minister and that fare was from Canberra to Sydney and then to London. I cannot remember whether it was via Bangkok. We then had some business in London to attend to. We then flew from London to Rome and from Rome back to Sydney and then Canberra.

Senator WILLIAMS: That was business class?

Ms O'Connell : I will have to check.

Senator WILLIAMS: It would have been either first class or business class.

Ms O'Connell : It was first class or business class.

Senator WILLIAMS: I have never flown on an overseas trip in business or first class, but is there much difference in price between first class and business class? Do you know that offhand?

Mr Wilson : At the moment, the price differential for a Qantas flight is in the order of $2,000.

Senator WILLIAMS: From business to first?

Mr Wilson : A Qantas flight to London business class is around $12,000; first class is around $14,000.

Senator WILLIAMS: Cattle class is around $2,000, is it not?

Mr Wilson : Economy is around $2,000.

Senator WILLIAMS: Finally, in relation to the trip of 25-27 May 2011, on which Ms O'Connell accompanied the parliamentary secretary to Germany for two days, can you provide some explanation for the high airfare figure?

Ms O'Connell : That reflects a trip on which I accompanied the parliamentary secretary to the international transport forum in Leipzig in late May.

Senator WILLIAMS: You flew from where?

Ms O'Connell : From Canberra; so it was Canberra to Sydney to Leipzig via Dusseldorf and at least one other location. I attended the International Transport Forum with the parliamentary secretary, but then I travelled separately in a visit to have a look at some ports. I went to Hamburg—I went via train from Leipzig to Hamburg—and then flew out of Hamburg to Rotterdam and went via train from Rotterdam to Paris to get a flight and then flew from Paris via Singapore—and I spend a day in Singapore visiting the Singapore port—back to Sydney and Canberra.

Senator WILLIAMS: Could you take on notice the details of that travel, please, and the costings of it. I do not have the costings of it. That would be fine.

Ms O'Connell : Yes.

Senator WILLIAMS: In relation to travel allowance for these visits, I note that in answer to question 28 the two trips taken by Mr Mrdak record travel allowances being paid but none of the other trips have recorded a travel allowance claim. Why would this be?

Mr Mrdak : It reflects the fact that secretaries are on a different arrangement to the rest of departmental staff. We operate under a reimbursement system under guidelines from the remuneration tribunal, whereas other departmental staff utilise what we call a corporate travel card. They are unable to directly pay for matters. With my travel I am reimbursed, based on a daily rate set by the remuneration tribunal, for my expenses incurred.

Senator WILLIAMS: When your staff travel, do they book their fares themselves or is someone in your department responsible for the bookings?

Mr Mrdak : We operate with a travel provider who undertakes the bookings for our company. I will ask Mr Banham, if I may, to give you an outline of how that process works.

Mr Banham : We use a whole of government arrangement for travel booking. The head contract is managed by the Department of Finance and Deregulation. When staff want to travel they usually do it online but they can also do it through a phone booking. They contact the travel service provider, who will provide them with a range of fares which are based upon the best fare of the day. It is up to the officers to then make a decision to select the fare and the carrier, and the booking is usually done online.

Senator WILLIAMS: That is it for me, Chair.