08 April 2016
by Heath Aston
Barnaby Joyce charters two $4000 helicopter rides to visit a village near his electorate office
It was the day before Easter in Drake, a sleepy village in northern NSW, when the peace was interrupted by a helicopter depositing Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce on a sporting field behind the popular local pub, the Lunatic Hotel.
Drake is just a 40-minute drive from Mr Joyce's second electorate office in Tenterfield but his office insists a helicopter was the best option to avoid a four-hour drive from his home base in Tamworth. It was his second chopper ride to the village in less than a year.
The latest Drake visit, which will cost the public almost $4000, happened two days after the Turnbull government released a long-awaited review into parliamentary entitlements sparked by the "choppergate" scandal that engulfed former speaker Bronwyn Bishop and sent Tony Abbott's prime ministership into a final nosedive.
The review called for clear guidelines so the "use of charter transport must constitute value for money, and in particular that, in the absence of compelling reasons, helicopters cannot be chartered to cover short distances".
Mr Joyce, who has been in unofficial election campaign mode since Tony Windsor recently declared his challenge in New England, arrived in Drake on March 24.
During the three-hour visit he launched a Telstra mobile tower - first announced in June 2015 - and visited the school, a local blueberry farm and inspected a bridge in need of an upgrade.
While the new tower was well-received by voters, not everyone in Drake was impressed with the flying visit, particularly the Nationals leader's chosen mode of travel.
"Barnaby Joyce flew by helicopter to our little country town of Drake. He went to the public school, met with teachers and children and then flew off ... what a waste of taxpayer money. Barnaby Bishop," Drake resident Jacqueline King posted to Facebook.
The chopper charter will cost the public $3,836, according to Mr Joyce's office, once the invoice from Fleet Helicopters Armidale is processed by the Department of Finance.
A spokesman said the flight "represents approximately a third of Mr Joyce's remaining charter allowance", a $21,000 allocation for MPs whose electorates are up to 99,000 square kilometres in size.
"The charter allowance is not a bottomless pit and the decision to travel to Drake by helicopter to fulfil commitments that day was regarded as sufficiently important to spend this portion of the allowance. There is no airstrip at Drake, which made the helicopter flight the preferred transport," he said.
The spokesman said Drake is in the far northern part of Mr Joyce's electorate and it would have taken him more than three hours to drive there from Armidale, and at least another hour on top of that from Tamworth.
After I'm finished I'll have a beer and jump in the chopper and head off to fly over the blueberry farm.
"Without access to the flight Mr Joyce would not have been able to launch the Telstra Drake Mobile phone tower, which the federal government funded," the spokesman said, noting the timing of the event had been determined by Telstra.
He added Mr Joyce's two flights to Drake were his only electorate-related helicopter charters since becoming the member for New England.
A year ago, Mr Joyce told ABC New England that he often visited the Lunatic by road. "I take a run down from Tenterfield to Casino and I always stop here," he said.
At $136,000, Mr Joyce's charter air travel bill for the current term of Parliament is second only to Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion. The VIP air travel of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is not recorded as entitlements.
The vast majority of his charter travel is in his capacity as Agriculture Minister, which takes him to remote and rural areas across the country.
Mr Windsor spent $10,488 on charter travel during his last three years in Parliament, according to entitlements records.
Liberal MP Tony Pasin, whose South Australian seat of Barker is almost exactly the same size as New England, has spent $13,000 on charter flights this term while Andrew Broad, whose Victorian seat of Mallee is larger than both, has spent $10,374.
The pre-Easter flight wasn't the first time Mr Joyce has landed in a helicopter on "the Quacka", the field behind the Lunatic Hotel.
According to reports in the local newspaper, he "dropped in" last year to check on reports publicans Bob and Desley Kane were set to shut the doors of the Lunatic for good.
"I always try to have a beer after I speak, because if I have a beer before I speak I start saying what I think. After I'm finished I'll have a beer and jump in the chopper and head off to fly over the blueberry farm," he told local reporters on June 10, 2015.
That flight does not appear in Mr Joyce's record of parliamentary entitlements despite the latest six-month accounts, between January and July 2015, covering that period.
A spokesman for Mr Joyce said that helicopter charter cost $4166 but a delay in processing the invoice by the Department of Finance meant it would appear in the next batch of entitlement claims.
That flight also began in Armidale and included a stop at the Aboriginal community of Jubullum.
Mrs Bishop was forced to resign last year following revelations had a charter helicopter took her the 90 kilometres between Melbourne and Geelong to attend a fundraiser.
She has since repaid the $5000 cost of the flight.
In 2013, Mr Joyce landed in hot water, along with Julie Bishop and backbencher Teresa Gambaro, for using "overseas study" allowances to fly home from a sumptuous three-day wedding of the granddaughter of an Indian industrialist in Hyderabad.
The trio had been flown to India by billionaire miner Gina Rinehart.