FOREIGN Minister Bob Carr has vowed to keep taking his wife on his taxpayer-funded overseas trips, describing her as an “asset for Australia”.
Senator Carr’s wife Helena has accompanied him on almost every overseas trip he has made since becoming foreign minister in March, costing taxpayers about $120,000 in mostly business class airfares in just six months.
The federal opposition says Senator Carr appears to be in breach of ministerial guidelines.
Documents released under freedom of information (FOI) laws show Mrs Carr travelled with her husband on eight of the nine trips he took in the months between late March and early September.
The arrangement is highly unusual for a foreign minister. Senator Carr’s Labor predecessors Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd rarely if ever took their wives on official overseas trips.
But Senator Carr has defended the arrangement, saying the cost is “absolutely justified”.
“I’m proud that Helena has accompanied me on every trip I’ve done. Because while I’m talking to the foreign minister, she’s inspecting aid projects, or talking to groups of women,” he told reporters in Sydney on Thursday.
“She’ll continue to accompany me. She does a job for Australia and she’s an asset for Australia.”
Senator Carr said his wife’s presence also helped Australia’s United Nations security council campaign because it underlined the country’s multicultural nature. Mrs Carr was born in Malaysia to Indian and Chinese parents.
But coalition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop called it another example of Senator Carr’s “unorthodox” approach to the job.
“Bob Carr appears to be in breach of the ministerial guidelines by taking his wife on virtually all overseas travel,” Ms Bishop said in a statement to AAP.
“I am not aware of any formal role to which Mrs Carr has been appointed in terms of promoting Australia’s foreign aid program and minister Carr must explain the basis of this informal role.”
Ms Bishop also called on Prime Minister Julia Gillard to explain why she approved Mrs Carr’s travel.
The total cost of Senator Carr’s nine trips was an estimated $828,754, the FOI documents show.
Of that, Mrs Carr’s airfares – the vast majority of which were business class – accounted for an estimated $123,928. Her meals and incidentals cost a further estimated $8000.
The figures come from pre-travel estimates provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Senator Carr’s office. A spokesman for Senator Carr conceded the figures were “pretty close” to the actual costs.
The spokesman said Senator Carr had always followed the relevant ministerial guidelines.
Those guidelines say ministers are “generally not accompanied on official overseas travel by his or her spouse or de facto partner”. But exceptions are made when host countries have extended an invitation to the spouse and where an official program of engagements has been arranged.
The documents do not include the trip Senator Carr took to New Zealand before he was sworn in, or any of his travel in the past seven weeks. It is believed Mrs Carr accompanied her husband most of that time.
The only trip listed in the documents that Mrs Carr did not go on was a 24-hour visit her husband made to Fiji – at a steep cost of more than $42,000.
For that trip, Senator Carr took a special purpose aircraft at a cost of about $35,000 instead of flying commercially.
Senator Carr’s spokesman said he opted for the private plane because he had to be back in Canberra for pre-budget cabinet meetings. – AAP