MPs in the air

Ann-Marie Hermans MP travelled to Armenia to attend an AIJAC event. Picture: Supplied.

By Ethan Benedicto, Aap

Local representatives are among the fray as Victorian MPs received backlash for the amount spent on international travel expenses in the past year.

A total of $28,319 in taxpayer funds was spent by four MPs representing the southeast, two of who are in the Upper House, on trips to North America and Asia.

According to statistics from the Victorian Independent Remuneration Tribunal, each MP has an international travel allowance of $10,765 per annum, which is used to perform public duties overseas.

Narre Warren South MP Gary Maas was America-bound, spending a total of $6216 on a flight to Chicago, Illinois to attend a Neetroots Nations Conference from 11 to 22 July 2023.

In a statement outlined in his travel report, Maas said that the reason for his travel was that “communication techniques and platforms are evolving and changing quickly.

“I want to research the latest platforms and techniques from progressive parties and organisations to be able to provide information and receive feedback from constituents via different platforms,” Maas said.

Throughout the trip, Mr Maas attended all three plenary sessions and nine training/professional development panels over the conference’s three days.

He further stated in the report that he would “thoroughly recommend this conference to other members of parliament.”

He added that it’s for those “who are interested in improving or keeping up with the latest communication strategies and organising tools for their electorates.”

In the electorate above, Narre Warren North MP Belinda Wilson joined Upper House member Lee Tarlamis on a trip to India from the dates of 6 to 18 September 2023.

Costing a total of $4575, Mrs Wilson’s travel statement said that the purpose of the trip was to further build on the relationship between Victoria and India.

The delegation trip was aimed at “strengthening our bilateral ties, exploring potential business opportunities, and to further understand the shared values and interests between Victoria and India,” she said.

Her travel report included further details and statistics on trade dynamics between Victoria and India, as well as an emphasis on strengthening bilateral ties.

According to the Members of Parliament guidelines, an MP may claim the international travel allowance for travel and transport costs to perform their public duties.

In addition, the allowance also covers accommodation, meals and incidentals when an MP is overseas.

Dr Zareh Ghazarian from Monash University weighed in on the appropriateness of the international trips, stating that “there’s political risk for MPs who take on these trips because of exactly what’s happening.”

“I think any sort of expenditure by government is going to be scrutinised by the public, especially in times where there is great interest in cost of living, cost of living pressures, housing affordability.”

A political scientist from Monash’s school of social sciences, Dr Ghazarian added that “these trips should be opportunities for MPs to try and enhance their knowledge and their skillset, and help them make better or more effective policy decisions.”

“But of course, these are the rules, it’s not as if MPs have acted illegally or done something that is improper, they’re acting within their existing entitlements.

“Really it’s up to the community to then pass judgement on whether those sorts of trips and the justifications the MPs had made pass what the community standards are.

“Whether they believe they are getting value for money from the trips and sorts of investments that are being made in their MPs’ travel arrangements,” Dr Ghazarian said.

Upper House MP Lee Tarlamis made his second trip to India that year with Mrs Wilson, spending a total of $4689 for a stay from 5 to 18 September 2023.

A few months earlier, Mr Tarlamis made his first trip to India between 10 to 19 February, costing $6194.

In that February trip’s travel report, he began by acknowledging that “the largest Indian population in Victoria is in the South Eastern suburbs.”

“I travelled to India to strengthen the relationship between Victoria and India.

“Make contacts with business executives and government officials, and comprehend the shared values and interests of our governments to inform my job as their Legislative Council representative,” Mr Tarlamis said.

An extensive itinerary was included in Mr Tarlamis’ report, one that detailed his attendance at events, meetings with ministers and visits to landmarks.

Both Mr Tarlamis and Mrs Wilson provided a recommendations section on the report, where they provided their advice regarding their findings.

To attend an Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) parliamentary research event, Upper House MP Ann-Marie Hermans was the other southeast representative to travel overseas.

While not specifically detailed in her personal travel report, Mrs Hermans travelled with Rowville MP Kim Wells to Yerevan from 7 to 20 July 2023.

Costing a total of $5868, Mrs Hermans’ travel agenda was included in Mr Wells’, where both parties dedicated their travel to the south-east’s many Armenian communities.

“The Armenian community have reached out to develop relationships with members of parliament and want to be heard.

“Firstly, the Armenians have requested that the Victorian Parliament establish a Parliamentary Friendship Group with Armenia.

“The objective of the trip to Armenia is to decide whether we will support a ‘Parliamentary Friends of Armenia’ and/or be members of the group,” the report said.

This report provided an extensive summary of the trip and included a section listing their achievements which included improvement in bi-partisan relations and further understanding of Armenia’s diplomatic tensions.

Premier Jacinta Allan supported the availability of claiming international travel allowance to backbenchers.

Ms Allan said that “there is an independent process that sits over the decisions around members of parliament’s allowances and rates of pay, that’s what it should be.”

“We all have a responsibility that should we choose to take up these allowances, we need to do it responsibly.”

This comes as the Premier herself recently announced that while the city hasn’t been announced, she would be making a trip to India sometime later this year.

Travel reports for each MP are available to the public for viewing and can be accessed through their respective Parliament of Victoria website.

There, one can personally see an MP’s expenses, as well as other items such as their trip itinerary, objectives, the reason for travel and a breakdown of their findings throughout the trip.