The cost of having a say in world politics


Sydney Opera House, venue for the cancelled Quad. Image by Patty Jansen

On the eve of what was to be Australia’s first time as host of the Quad meeting, let’s reflect on the proposed cost – some $23 million according to Budget papers. It is understood more than 20% of the budget was allocated to the Federal Police, to ensure the security of invited dignitaries.

The planned Quad meeting, with the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the US to be arriving in Sydney, was scrapped after President Biden  cancelled owing to ongoing debt ceiling negotiations at home.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Albanese continued with plans to host an official visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr Modi arrived in Australia on Monday, with his arrival in Sydney causing great excitement in the suburb known as ‘Little India”. Coincidence or not, SBS reported this week that after a community appeal, the suburb of Harris Park is to be officially known as Little India.

A high proportion of Sydney’s 188,000-strong Indian population live in or around Harris Park. On Tuesday night, Mr Modi attended a rally of 20,000 at Qudos Bank Arena in western Sydney. Modi is a polarising figure, though, both here and at home. Indian Muslim community groups have already declared they do not welcome the visit, citing human rights violations against minority groups in India.

This is Prime Minister Modi’s first visit to Australia since 2014. His two-day stay will include holding talks with Mr Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. I should point out Modi came to Australia via Papua New Guinea, where he met with Pacific Islands leaders.

The Australian Financial Review said Mr Modi and Mr Albanese are expected to build on a communiqué issued after the first annual leaders’ summit in New Delhi in March (which Mr Alabanese attended).

There will be talks on economic co-operation, Australia’s status as a critical minerals supplier, and India’s opportunities for low-cost manufacturing in green technology. Defence co-operation will also be on the agenda, with Australia preparing to host India’s naval war games.

So that’s India covered. What about the other Quad members?

The Quad is a strategic security dialogue amongst Australia, India, Japan and the US, maintained by talks with member countries. One could argue that much of this business could have been done at last week’s G7, the big brother of international talk-fests.

I don’t usually watch the ABC’s Sunday Morning political talk show, ‘Insiders’, but on occasions come in at the end for Mike Bowers’ entertaining ‘Talking Pictures’.

Mike and a guest cartoonist go through their selection of the best political cartoons for the week. Not surprisingly, David Pope’s detailed drawings often feature, as do the works of Cathy Wilcox, Peter Broelman, Jon Kudelka among others.

David Pope’s cheeky depiction of US president Joe Biden swiping a maxxed-out credit card tells the story of President Joe cancelling his proposed attendance of the Quad in Australia.

Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese caught up last week at the G7, another expensive talk fest, both for the host country (Japan) and the countries sending delegations. This year, the G7 was held in Hiroshima, one of two Japanese cities obliterated by a US-delivered atomic bomb in August 1945.

Biden and Albanese reportedly held close talks at the G7 about climate change. Albanese has been quoted as saying that action on climate change was “the entry fee to credibility in the Indo-Pacific”.

The US president said in turn that the two nations were launching a new joint initiative to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

By that, as The Guardian reported, Biden meant building more “resilient critical mineral supply chains”.

Biden said action on climate and clean energy would be another central pillar of the Australia-US alliance. He said he looked forward to hosting Mr Albanese for a State visit in Washington DC later this year.

That’s all very well, but that will also mean another (expensive) international VIP trip for the PM and a team of hand-picked Ministers and advisers.

As we can tell by the tabling of former PM Scott Morrison‘s travel expenses in his first year in office (2019), it’s a costly business.

SBS News did a bit of digging (they submitted Freedom of Information requests), to publish a report in November 2019.

Scott Morrison served as Australian Prime Minister from August 2018 until May 2022. SBS found that Mr Morrison racked up more than $1.3 million in travel costs. He made 12 international trips, visiting 17 nations, in the first 12 months since he had taken office in August 2018.

It is hard to argue that an Australian PM and indeed senior Ministers should not travel to other countries for diplomacy, negotiations and photo opportunities. Our is a vast, isolated continent surrounded by water and many hours’ distance from even our nearest neighbours.

But when you consider the proliferation of international meetings and conventions on climate change, security, the economy, peace and stability, the five-star hotel chains and limo hire companies must be doing OK.

When the G7 was held in Cornwall in 2021, the cost to British taxpayers was put at 70 million pounds ($A131,112m). It’s more difficult to establish what the G7 cost Japan. Al Jazeera reported Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wants to ‘send a strong message’ about the need for a world without nuclear weapons, hence using Hiroshima as the host city.

It’s interesting to think how much money was saved during the first 18 months of the Covid lockdown. Conferences and meetings were universally held over internet portals such as Zoom, where the biggest expenses were cyber security and bandwidth.

Michelle Grattan had a bit to say about politicians and travel last year. By June 2022, Mr Albanese had visited Indonesia, took part in a Quad meeting in Japan, was about to attend a NATO summit in Madrid, and, despite some internal advice to the contrary, visited war-torn Ukraine. Not to be thwarted, Albanese also visited Paris, at a time when the Australian government was in ‘mauvaise odeur’ over Scott Morrison’s decision to cancel a submarine contract with France.

Grattan defended the right of a PM to visit foreign shores.

“International conferences give an opportunity for the new PM to meet multiple leaders, gather information and signal continuities and change (for example on climate policy) in Australia’s national priorities.

By she added that a newly-elected Prime Minister must be careful in deciding how much foreign travel to undertake. In mid-2022, ordinary Australians were finding the rising cost of living a challenge. The situation has worsened in mid-2023.

“At some point, being away too much stirs criticism,” Grattan wrote.

Despite the cost of staging global conferences, the Group of Seven agreed upon strong moves against Russia, including sanctions and export controls.

Still to come this year, the G20 in New Delhi (September) and the climate change summit, COP28 (Expo City, Dubai) in November. Somewhere in amongstall that, the PM and his troops would do well to stay home and work on the most important (domestic) issue of all – the Voice to Parliament referendum.

As The Conversation observed earlier in May, the latest polls suggest 54% Yes and 46% No. (Come on, Queensland, come on, come on. Ed)

Much work to be done at home.








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