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Barnaby Joyce's spending of public money deemed private by IPEA

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(Image courtesy @TwoEyeHead / Twitter.)

The IPEA refuses to release information on Barnaby Joyce's expenses as they are "personal in nature", while he sells his story to the highest bidder. Dr Jennifer Wilson reports.

IT SHOULD COME as no surprise to anyone that former Deputy Prime Minister, now backbencher, Barnaby Joyce has come to a financial arrangement with Channel Seven over the televised disclosure of his personal life, and that of his new partner Vikki Campion and their baby son.

Joyce, like many of his Coalition colleagues, has since the 2016 U.S. election been busily engaged in the liberation of his inner Trump — emulating that President’s contempt for ethical and moral concerns, both personal and political.

It was only a matter of time before the Nationals MP and Member for New England decided to turn a profit from his kin after indignant protestations – interestingly enough made when nobody was offering him any money – that his personal life was private and his intention was to protect his infant son from a prurient media. Well, the child is still in need of protection and much of the media still prurient — the only difference now is money.

What is even more worthy of serious consideration, however, is the suite of decisions made by the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority’s authorised decision maker, Petra Gartmann, to deny Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by media organisations on the matter of Joyce and Campion’s travel expenses.

The IPEA’s latest refusal of information, reported in The West Australian on 21 May 2018, is justified by Ms Gartmann on the somewhat baffling grounds that releasing it may 

'... endanger the life or physical safety of staff involved or individuals associated.'

Take a moment to think on that. Releasing Joyce and Campion’s travel expenses may endanger life or physical safety. This extraordinary justification is in itself worthy of investigation. Since when has the revelation of an MP’s travel expenses caused risk to life? Isn’t it in the public’s interest to know the circumstances in which such endangerment might occur and what form it is likely to adopt? Are Joyce and Campion’s travel expenses matters of national security? Were they conducting covert operations, other than the personal?

Gartmann also claims that revealing the travel expenses of the couple may expose matters of a “personal nature”, despite the travel being for official purposes and funded by the taxpayer.

Ms Gartmann also denied similar FOI requests in March 2018, made by the Sydney Morning Herald, on the grounds that if the information was released it would be 'widely published' and would 'generate public discussion, including on social media'.  Such an outcome could, according to Ms Gartmann, lead to the 'undermining of the IPEA’s independence'.

Ms Gartmann’s decisions, in themselves, bring the IPEA’s independence into question. Releasing travel expenses may endanger life? Releasing travel expenses may provoke public discussion? Is there an equivalence between public discussion of travel expenses and the endangerment of life? Is there a precedent for such concerns? Why does Ms Gartmann seek to prevent public discussion of matters that are very much in the public’s interest? Is fear of public discussion, including on social media, a reason for the withholding of information? In general, FOI requests are made precisely because of public interest and the right of the public to discuss certain matters, are they not?

These bizarre IPEA decisions to deny the FOI requests must now be subject to serious scrutiny, given Mr Joyce’s decision to sell his personal story to the highest bidder. It is simply not a credible justification that the publication of travel expenses could endanger life and provoke undesirable public discussion when Mr Joyce and Ms Campion have now chosen to make a public spectacle of themselves and their infant son on commercial television for financial gain.

Joyce, like Trump, is under the impression that he can do what he likes. Conceal his travel expenses from the public who paid for them while simultaneously flogging his personal life for profit? Why not?

In late February, Joyce declared to the media:

"I don't want our child to grow up as some sort of public display."

It seems that for Joyce everything has its price — even the wellbeing and the future of his baby son.

Joyce is taking us for fools. And what precisely is the role of the IPEA and Ms Petra Gartmann in this farce?

It would make sense for the mainstream media to pursue these questions. The IPEA is a statutory body, which, as we have seen in the IPA and media pursuit of the Human Rights Commission, is no barrier to media scrutiny — and neither should it be.

Barnaby Joyce is playing the public and he can’t do this without assistance. Just how far and wide this assistance ranges is a legitimate question for the public and the media to pose.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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