Tuesday, November 4, 2014


What class are you?

And shouldn't an Australian Governor General be flying Qantas?

A Singapore Bed - I could cope!

On his recent trip to Dubai Cosgrove travelled business.

It's very different to the way things happened under Labor, as I wrote in the Canberra Times . . .


Here's one. The Governor General’s the number one official in the land. The incumbent appoints the Prime Minister (who is not even mentioned in the Constitution), is in charge of the Defence Force, and signs bills into law. Without this person must say so, nothing happens. So what class should they travel?

Dame Quentin Bryce set records as she traversed the world, lobbying for our position on the UN security Council. She travelled first class all the way. Similarly Kevin Rudd never slummed it down the back when he was Prime Minister. Labor MP’s had no problem sitting at the pointy end of the plane. Back in those days our elected officials didn't just fly business – it was first-class all the way.

Not today though. When Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove recently travelled to Dubai and Afghanistan, he flew business class. And, as a result of a new government policy to book the cheapest fare of the day, he also flew Emirates, rather than Qantas. So much for the perks of office. Or buying Australian.

I was told a ripple of surprise shot through the cabin as General Cosgrove, a large man, padded down the aisle to his seat in the back of the business class section. He's the first Governor General not to fly first. The decision inevitably exposes him to far more interaction with his subjects. The General was absorbed in a movie when another passenger came up asking for a "selfie". Well, he couldn't really say "no", could he?

The irony is Cosgrove already has a large stash of his own personal frequent-flyer points, but under the new government policy he's not allowed to use them for upgrades. This led to a bizarre situation when he was returning from his only other foreign trip since taking office – the trip to Holland after the MH 17 disaster.

He flew back on the same plane as New Zealand's Governor General, Jerry Mateparae. But while the Kiwi was drinking the finest champagne and savouring tasty morsels prepared to order before slipping into the shower, Cosgrove was making do with a plastic razor in the business class toilet. Still better than economy, of course, but a little tricky when one is being whisked straight from the plane to one's next appointment. Not to mention the horror of touching down after the New Zealander, who was also a Defence Force Chief.

It's understood the decision to fly business was arrived at during one of the regular breakfast meetings between the Governor General and the Prime Minister. Tony Abbott’s instituted these because he's determined to repair the rift that developed between the two offices during Rudd's time in office. When the PM announced he'd be flying business, the Governor General offered to do the same.

This hasn't been an issue when Cosgrove has been travelling domestically, although he's set himself a far more punishing schedule than his predecessor. In his first seven months in the job, the GG attended 450 functions in 45 different locations; an average of a different location every 2.8 days. Last month's trip to Afghanistan was his 75th trip while holding the job – although it's only the second time he's travelled overseas.

This matches another commitment reached during one of those breakfast meetings – emphasising that the Governor General's more than just a figurehead on the ship of state. Cosgrove makes a determined effort to be accessible and approachable, rather than remote.

This was demonstrated a few weeks ago, at a function in South Australia, when a young girl stumbled as she approached the vice-regal couple. Displaying a surprising agility, Cosgrove lept off the stage to rescue her. The moment provided a startling contrast to the normal, stultifying, formality of official functions.

Similarly, when he was with the troops in the Middle East, the former general was particularly keen to engage with the troops. After we'd been chatting to Airforce personnel, Cosgrove came over to me to emphasise something a pilot had said. "Did you hear that? He said the best bomb could be the bomb you don't drop. These guys know,"the Governor General said, "that killing civilians could lose this war. It's very impressive."

Cosgrove's flying visit to the war zone was necessarily fleeting, but that didn't stop him from attempting to touch down everywhere and speak to everyone, however briefly. And the travel – perched on a dicky-seat in the plane's cockpit – was hardly luxurious. And this, of course, is the issue.

Some would suggest that the Governor General deserves to be reclining comfortably in first-class simply because he occupies the top job. This is the prestige argument: the idea that because the job embodies the country, it's important that no one can look down on the GG simply because they've got the money to buy a better seat on an aeroplane. This certainly seemed to be the feeling of many of the troops.

Others emphasise that nobody should be expected to be on show all the time. This is, however, the reality for someone in Cosgrove's position. He can't just "clock off" because he is, inevitably, being watched every moment. This argument suggests that at least first class provides some seclusion for public figures. But if that’s the case for the Governor General, surely it should apply even more to the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister?

Will the situation change? As governments become accustomed to the perks of office (and more removed from the humdrum realities of daily existence) a willingness to indulge becomes more noticeable. That hasn't been the case, however, with the current government. John Howard's travel was always marked by comfort verging on luxury. Labor saw no reason to change this. Abbott's government, however, is wearing the hair shirt.

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