Staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) working overseas during the coronavirus pandemic have been accused of using taxpayer dollars to double book seats on flights to Australia and acting with “rampant self-interest” at the expense of others.
A security source told news.com.au staff had used taxpayer funds to book flights with two separate airlines, then simply cancelled a second flight once a person had managed to return home.
Staff also take chauffer-driven trips to Canberra after flying into Sydney at taxpayer expense, in a practice the agency regards as minimising risk to the public.
The source said third-party contractors stationed overseas had been left working for months beyond their scheduled rotation in a situation that leaves their mental health at risk.
These include military veterans who have “more resilience than most, but everyone has limits that, after a period of time, are tested,” the person said.
Up to 23,000 Australians are stranded overseas with some having been bumped from flights up to 13 times, often at very short notice.
Flights are also desperately hard to book, with the nearest available business-class ticket from London to Sydney not leaving until mid-December and advertised at more than $7780. An Emirates flight at the same time is currently advertised for $8197.
The source said it was “extremely disappointing” to see those meant to be working for Australia’s interests overseas instead showing “rampant self-interest” in a situation that was widely known about by senior management.
“These are people with access to flights. Instead of worrying about Australians looking after them with weapons for six months, or someone stranded for months, they’re worried about their entitlements.”
“It doesn’t really accord with your values. You go overseas and you work in the national interest … but they’re just advancing their own interests.”
“Regardless of the fact of using taxpayer dollars, they’re almost surely restricting someone else from getting the fare of the day for the seat.”
“If you deprive people of the ability to go home it becomes a real mental health issue … I think it’s irresponsible.”
“You’re basically saying as long as we don’t get found out … but really we’re spending tens of thousands on treating people well over and above the average Australians. How does that equate to having a fair go?”
A spokesperson for DFAT said staff are required to seek three quotes for flights and decisions are made based on the lowest fare available that meets the needs of the traveller.
“DFAT is not aware of staff booking multiple flights on separate airlines to secure a seat. DFAT officers must adhere to the appropriate use of public funds under legislation,” the spokesperson said.
The agency also confirmed DFAT staff are able to seek an “exemption from quarantining in government organised facilities when they return from overseas.”
“This means they are not counted in the international arrival passenger caps and do not take places away from Australians seeking to return.”
Those that do fly into Sydney and require transport to ACT use private drivers “for private quarantine as a COVID-19 safe measure, to minimise contact with the broader community to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
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‘RATHER BE A LOBSTER’
The comments come amid growing pressure on the government to lift quarantine caps that have left more than 20,000 Australians stranded through no fault of their own.
Current caps on inbound travellers are due to stay in place until October 24. It limits those arriving into Australia to 350 passengers per day for Sydney, 525 per week for Perth and 500 per week for Brisbane and Adelaide each. Canberra and Darwin’s arrivals are on a case-by-case basis, while no international flights are going into Hobart or Melbourne because of quarantine breaches that caused a second wave in the city.
This week New South Wales Senator, Kristina Keneally, blasted Mr Morrison for spending $350 million on charter flights to fly seafood from Australia to Asia while Aussies remains stuck.
“This government is leaving these Australians behind,” she said. “If you’re a lobster you get a ticket on a charter flight, but if you’re an Aussie overseas you get left stranded, left behind by this Morrison government,” she said in a speech that has gone viral among Aussies stuck abroad. Many have changed their Facebook profile pictures to lobsters in protest.
After Friday’s National Cabinet meeting Mr Morrison said the state and territory leaders “agreed” to boost quarantine capacity, with cities other than Sydney to take more arrivals.
“We noted that New South Wales has been doing all the heavy lifting on this, and they really are at their capacity for the time being,” he said.
“The Transport Minister will be working with others to see if we can get flights that currently all seek to come to Sydney, to see if we’re in a position to try and get them to go into other ports, whether that be in Perth, in Adelaide, in Darwin, the ACT, or elsewhere, even Tasmania.
“We want to get more Australians home and we need to do that safely as well, and not compromise the quarantine arrangements we have here as well.”
‘REMOVE THE CAP’
For Aussies stuck overseas the potential lifting of caps in future is a torturous waiting game that has left many stretched to financial and emotional breaking point.
Australian-Dutch national Pieter Den Heten has been overseas since September 2019 and is hoping to return home on November 1 on a Qatar flight he bought and upgraded to business after his initial British Airways ticket was cancelled.
The UX designer had moved to Germany after a decade in Sydney but had decided to return to Australia to live when Europe was thrown into lockdown. It has left him jobless and couch-surfing with friends in the Netherlands where he was visiting family in preparation for his return to Australia.
Mr Den Heten has put his design skills to use with a website Remove the Cap, dedicated to telling stories of Australians stranded around the world, from Sierra Leone to Morocco, the Middle East and South America.
Despite having upgraded his November Qatar seat to business in the hopes of securing a place, he still has a “gut feeling I’m not going to be on that flight” he told news.com.au.
But he’s hopeful his site can help shift the tide of public opinion in favour of lifting the caps to allow Aussies to come home.
“If I can show all the stories hopefully that will change public opinion,” he said. “I do think politicians are just working on public opinion.”
Sydney man Bazal Wright, 38, has also been stuck in a desperate situation since visiting his terminally ill father in the UK on July 12.
His return flight with Qatar was cancelled and he has since been forced to buy another three tickets after each failed to fly for various reasons. He now has more than $20,000 tied up with airlines as he waits for refunds and his October 24 scheduled flight to take off.
“I simply want to go home,” he told news.com.au, adding that he’s unable to get any income support in Australia or the UK which has left him in dire financial straits
“We are struggling to survive in humanity as we enter further into financial destitution, us who simply travelled because our families are dying or need our own help.
“My own father, usually full of love and life, at 61 is terminally ill and appears to been in his late 80s because of this, now feels he is responsible for me being trapped in the UK. If only I hadn’t returned to him … is this what we are to become?”
Do you know more? Victoria.Craw@news.com.au | @Victoria_Craw