Marles ordered to explain $3.6m in secret flights

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles could be forced to reveal details about his $3.6m in flights on VIP aircraft after weeks of dispute. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Defence Minister Richard Marles will have a week to hand over documents revealing the dates and cost of every flight taken on VIP aircraft in the past year.

The Greens and the Coalition teamed up in the Senate on Tuesday to order the release of the documents amid questions about the $3.6m cost of the 700 hours Mr Marles booked in RAAF special-purpose aircraft flights since last year.

While it’s been practice for parliamentarians since 1967 to regularly table details of taxpayer-funded military flights, Mr Marles – also the Defence Minister – has refused to publish where he has flown, why and the passenger manifests, citing “security” grounds.

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has flown more than 700 hours on RAAF flights in the past year. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Mr Marles sought advice from the AFP late last year on the security implications of making that information public and has defended the move.

He will have until 3pm next Thursday to provide the details on the dates and costs of every flight taken since January 2021 as well as their origins and destinations.

The guidelines provided to officials about the use of special purpose flights has also been ordered to be tabled.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said Australia deserved a “convincing explanation”.

“John Howard, in his government, released the details of flights that were taken at public expense and we’re asking for the same rules to apply here,” he told ABC Radio.

“So for us, it’s … let’s just be transparent about this. It’s a significant sum of money and previous governments have been upfront about how this money (was used), how these costs were incurred.

“And we think the government should just continue the practice of previous governments and disclose this information.

“We’re yet to hear a convincing explanation as to why that information won’t be disclosed, given previous governments have done it.”

Greens leader Adam Bandt said he was concerned about transparency. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Coalition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said special purpose aircraft provided an “essential function” for government ministers, but there was an expectation of “reasonable transparency” about how they were used.

“The government’s changes that no longer report any information on the routes that have been flown or the passengers on those aircraft are a complete subversion of the way in which transparency about their use should be applied,” Senator Birmingham said.

“They changed practice that has stood in place since the 1960s and they’ve made it next to impossible … to actually scrutinise how they are using these planes and to ask questions.”

Senator Birmingham confirmed the Coalition was putting a motion to the Senate calling for the government to “provide its security advice that justifies these decisions” confidentially to the parliamentary joint standing committee on intelligence and security.

“It will enable scrutiny by the opposition and some government backbenchers over whether or not the government is being genuine in the way it’s acting upon that security advice or whether it’s using that advice as a shield to make the most of SPA aircraft,” he said.

Senator Simon Birmingham said the Coalition would seek to order the documents around security advice on Tuesday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

The Coalition’s defence spokesman, Andrew Hastie, took Mr Marles to task in question time on Monday, asking whether he had “taken his golf clubs” on any of his taxpayer-funded flights or if he had taken anyone outside his family or staff.

Mr Marles said there had been instances of representatives from other governments on some flights before accusing the opposition of hypocrisy – noting they had enjoyed plenty of RAAF flights while in government.

“Let me be very clear, every place I have been, everything I’ve done, has been in pursuit of my duties as the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister Defence on behalf of this country, and I stand absolutely by every flight I have ever taken on the special purpose aircraft,’’ Mr Marles said.

He also sought to throw Opposition Leader Peter Dutton under the bus, telling the parliament about his recent request to use VIP aircraft to attend Matildas matches.

Last week, Mr Marles was accused of putting former speaker Bronwyn Bishop “to shame” over revelations he had taken RAAF flights to Avalon – close to his home in East Geelong – instead of using a Comcar.