It’s encouaraging that the Sydney Morning Herald runs this story today, continuing the necessary push-back against free trips to Israel taken by journalists and politicians, mostly too clueless (or pleased?) to realise that such visits seem to magically end up resulting in returnees praising the wonders of democratic Israel. Have these free-loaders no back-bone? How about asking to visit Gaza or deep inside the West Bank?
A former Australian ambassador to Israel has raised concern about the high number of overseas travel gifts accepted by federal MPs and suggested the scheme could be distorting Australia’s foreign policy perspectives.
Ross Burns said that during his time as ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2003 there were many visits by MPs but only one was not a travel gift. He said this had translated into a substantial political benefit for Israel over Arab countries.
“The issue of subsidised travel is a difficult one,” he told the Herald.
“The issue was particularly tortuous in the case of Israel, where a disproportionate number of visits, including backbench MPs, Opposition frontbenchers and serving ministers, were funded not by the Australian Government or the Parliament but by Israeli lobby groups.”
Last month the Herald revealed that almost one in four federal MPs had accepted free overseas travel from foreign governments, private companies and lobby groups in the 16 months since the last election.
The 109 trips abroad by politicians from all parties included 19 visits to China, 15 to Israel and 14 to Taiwan and to the United States.
Trips typically cost several thousand dollars and include business or first class air fares and accommodation. MPs are required to provide brief details to the Register of Pecuniary Interests but are not forced to reveal the cost, what they do nor whom they meet.
The spotlight has been thrown onto this unregulated scheme by the embarrassing confession by the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, that he had failed to declare two trips to China, in 2002 and 2005, paid for by his friend Helen Liu.
Mr Burns, who also served as ambassador to Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s and South Africa and Greece in the 1990s, called for the Government to review the travel gifts scheme.
“The heavy reliance on subsidised visits to Israel has taken its toll in terms of Australia’s wider interests. Most MPs and ministers who visited until recently followed programs that gave a heavily sanitised view of the Israel/Palestine situation,” Mr Burns said.
“Missing, for example, was any exposure to the heavy burden that Israel’s occupation of most of the lands of Palestine has imposed on both societies. Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv could often be sidelined in the natural desire of the hosts, and accompanying ‘minders’, to present a few ‘facts on the ground’ including meetings or visits that might be construed as accepting Israel’s sovereignty in contested territory.
“The number of trips to Israel also greatly outnumbered visits to Arab countries, even those that have provided significant elements of the Australian community such as Lebanon and Egypt.”
He said it was difficult to get ministers to visit Arab countries apart from “quick touchdowns” for an international gathering, and Australia’s interests were perceived by ministers “solely through the optic of our relations with Israel”.
“Ms Liu has done us a great service in reminding the Australian public that subsidised travel does have a hidden cost. I suspect the costs may be a lot more trivial in the case of China than in the Middle East, where our stocks have never been lower and where political mindsets have long been conditioned through the practice of subsidised visits,” he said.
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council has paid for 13 MPs to visit Israel since November 2007. Its executive director, Colin Rubenstein, said the program had been running for several years. Some journalists from the Herald have taken this trip.
“It’s usually a five-day or so intensive visit to try and understand better the very complex realities of the Middle East so they have a better understanding of what’s transpiring in the region and frankly make them more effective as parliamentarians,” he said.
“They’re mature people. We let them make up their own minds. They’re exposed to a whole range of viewpoints. They meet with a whole range of Israeli and Palestinian opinion when we can.”
He said the trips usually cost several thousand dollars each and the money came from supporters in Australia, not foreign governments.
Having spoken to Ross about this in the past, I hope he pursues his position further than simply through the media.
The Zionist lobby knows that if these trips stop, less people will buy the image of democratic, sunny, beautiful Israel.