The foreign affairs department spent close to $100,000 of taxpayers’ money on an Australian tour for European journalists which included business class flights.
Documents obtained by AAP under freedom of information, show six journalists and a think tank researcher were flown business class from Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Sweden, at a cost of close to $54,000 in March last year.
The remaining money was spent on hotel accommodation at the Stamford Plaza in Melbourne, Pullman hotel in Sydney, domestic flights in Australia, bus hire and travel allowances covering food costs.
The Office of the Information Commissioner ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to release the documents after a seven-month wait.
The focus of the program was multiculturalism in Australia.
The journalists had briefings with the immigration department about Australia’s asylum seeker boat crackdown Operation Sovereign Borders. They also met officials from the social services and foreign affairs.
The group spoke with the Australian Human Rights Commission, Refugee Council of Australia, Network Ten The Project host Waleed Aly, Deng Adut a former South Sudanese child soldier turned lawyer, and Australia’s 2017 Eurovision entrant, indigenous artist Isaiah Firebrace.
The department says international media visits aim to generate “informed foreign media reporting that contributes to a balanced and positive view of Australia”.
“Questions about immigration and multiculturalism are currently attracting significant attention internationally,” the program document says.
“Australia has a good story to tell and a positive contribution to make to the international discussion.”
The visit coincided with some criticism in Europe about the conditions in Australian-run detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea as well as the Mediterranean Sea migrant boat crisis.
At the time of the visit, Australia was campaigning for one of two seats on the United Nations human rights council against Spain and France, which later pulled out of the race.
While it’s common for national governments to invite foreign journalists on study tours it is unusual for them to be flown business class.
Labor’s waste watch spokesman Matt Keogh said the program had some merit but could have been run more efficiently.
“How on earth do you justify having business flights to bring these people out for a sales pitch on Australia?” he said.
“This is luxury excess.”
He also questioned how the countries of the reporters were chosen and whether the department had tried to curry favour with certain nations to support Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN human rights council.
In 2016, the department was criticised for spending $215,000 flying 23 bureaucrats business class to Paris to discuss ways to save money.