30 September 2015
by Latika Bourke

Why was Julie Bishop's boyfriend on the floor of the United Nations, asks Labor

David Panton sits alongside Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as Pope Francis speaks at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York.

Labor is accusing Julie Bishop of not taking her job as chief diplomat seriously enough, after her boyfriend was photographed sitting next to her in the official Australian section at the UN General Assembly in New York.

But the Foreign Minister defended her decision, saying it was within her discretion to allow her partner, David Panton, to attend the UN session alongside her. Ms Bishop also said, through a spokeswoman, that she regularly invites "friends" and constituents onto the floor of the United Nations.

The Foreign Minister has discretion as to who is invited to General Assembly sessions and has in the past invited constituents and friends to sit with her.Foreign Minister's Spokeswoman.

Ms Bishop is in New York attending high-level talks at UN leaders week. World leaders including US President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin are also attending the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.

But a picture showing her partner, Mr Panton seated next to her at the Australian section of the assembly in New York has raised eyebrows back home in Canberra.

"This is an important week at the UN and it's critical the government treats it with the seriousness it deserves. It's up to the Foreign Minister to explain if this is appropriate." Labor's junior spokesman for Foreign Affairs Matt Thistlethwaite said on Monday.

"If there's a legitimate reason for this then it needs to be clarified," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Minister said Mr Panton was not part of the Minister's official travelling party and paid for his own flights to the United States.

The United Nations Protocol and Liaison service says a member nation's delegation "shall consist of no more than representatives and five alternate representatives and as many advisers". The Chief of Protocol requests a list of names for any "personal guests" of the head of the delegation.

Further, the document says: "During the general debate, seating in the VIP section of the General Assembly Hall and the blue seats in the rear and balcony seating in the Hall are reserved for the use of delegations addressing the General Assembly at that time."

But a spokeswoman for the Foreign Minister rebuffed Labor's complaint.

"The Foreign Minister has discretion as to who is invited to General Assembly sessions and has in the past invited constituents and friends to sit with her," the spokeswoman said.

A source familiar with UN gatherings told Fairfax Media the minister's decision to include her partner and non-diplomatic staff at the official Australian section was highly unusual as it is traditionally an area for government and DFAT staffers only.

They also questioned the general practice of allowing personal guests to attend sessions, saying it could potentially lead to seats being granted to political donors.

They pointed out that when former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr visited the UN for Australia's successful bid to sit on the UN Security Council, his wife Helena was seated in the public gallery.

In opposition, Ms Bishop attacked Mr Carr for including Mrs Carr on nearly a dozen official trips. Her trips were paid for by the taxpayer, costing $120,000.

At the time, Ms Bishop questioned how Mrs Carr's attendance on overseas trips could advance Australia's interests.

"It is not common practice for a foreign minister or a secretary of state to travel with a spouse for the business part of a visit," Ms Bishop said in 2012.

"I guess what's quite concerning is it is against the government's own ministerial guidelines."

"They specifically state as a general rule a minister should not be accompanied by their spouse on official overseas travel and they can only do it with the prime minister's approval," Ms Bishop said.