Australia’s environment agencies spent $175,000 of taxpayers’ money on lavish meals and wine in a six-month period, including a $4,302 dinner to host energy industry representatives.
New figures provided to a Senate committee reveal the details of roughly 45 catered functions billed to the taxpayer by the environment department, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Clean Energy Regulator.
The spending, made in the last half of 2018, came as the Coalition cut critical areas of the environment department, including the biodiversity and conservation division – a move experts fear will hamper Australia’s ability to protect threatened species.
The Department of Environment and Energy spent $39,224 on catering, including a $2,500 banquet for 20 staff at decorated Canberra restaurant the Ottoman in September.
It also spent $4,302 on a dinner for public servants and 23 members of the “energy sector group”, an energy industry consultative body, at Hotel Realm, a five-star luxury hotel in the capital.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority spent $1,430 on a “chef’s signature banquet” for its board members, senior officers and three “external guests” at Wild Duck restaurant in Canberra. The dinner included $501 in taxpayers’ money on wine, including $225 on three bottles of shiraz from a leading local winery, Clonakilla.
Visiting royalty weren’t so lucky. Prince Albert of Monaco and his party were guests of the reef authority during a brief trip in November. They were given $140 worth of sandwiches from Sandwich Express in Townsville.
All up, the authority spent $10,459 on catering in a six-month period, including $1,664 for an event on Magnetic Island.
The Clean Energy Regulator threw a $3,760 industry dinner at the Glasshouse in Hobart, including $1,575 on drinks. The party included 10 “industry stakeholders”, as well as the regulator’s board, staff and Tasmanian government officials.
The regulator is a statutory authority that sits independently and separately from the environment department, as is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
A spokesman for the environment minister, Melissa Price, said the spending was “reasonable and proportionate”, particularly given the breadth of the portfolio and its work on the international stage.
“Any departmental spending on catering goes through a rigorous approval process, to ensure it is legitimate and clearly linked to our policy and program aims,” the spokesman said. “Catering can play a legitimate role in the delivery of government business.”
Staffing levels had also remained relatively consistent across the environment department, the spokesman said.
“The Department expects to see average staffing levels rise in the future, in line with delivery of recently announced measures,” he said.
It is not unusual for government departments to spend considerable amounts on catering.
The Department of Home Affairs faced criticism earlier this year for spending more than $450,000 on wining and dining in 2017-18, including $60,000 on a single dinner.
It was also revealed that the attorney general’s department and its portfolio agencies had spent more than $160,000 on catering in the same period.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission spent more than $50,000.
The environment minister was contacted for comment.