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Why Is Malcolm Turnbull Spending So Much On Global Roaming?

In the last half of 2011, Australian federal politicians spent more than $140,000 on global roaming charges — and shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull alone accounts for 13 per cent of that total, with more than $13,000 on one monthly bill. Why are the sums so high, and how can average Australians avoid running up the same charges? A Lifehacker exclusive analysis reveals all.

Trip or know someone who has been stung

Many of us have experienced bill shock ourselves afterwards a trip or know someone who has been stung by unexpected overseas phone charges, and it turns out that our federal representatives know just how that feels too. Data filed in the half-yearly expenses reports collated by the Department of Finance demonstrates that overseas roaming and charges are a regularly-listed item for the politicians who travel beyond our shores. Parliament isn’t alone in that, clearly; most business people would hit up their employer to reimburse charges incurred for work during travelling, and the sting of those bills is substantially reduced if you can get someone else to pay. However unlike private companies, our politicians have to disclose those expenditures in public reports.

Finance doesn’t total up overseas call and roaming charges as a separate item, either for individual politicians or as a group. So we’ve gone through the submitted reports for every sitting member of Federal Parliament for the July-December 2011 period and totalled up the entries which were detailed for ‘overseas calls’ on their phones as a separate item. Many of these come from ministers, who as representatives of the government are more likely to travel for work events and conferences. Others are due to the overseas study tours which members of Parliament are entitled to take; 23 members took such tours over that six-month period. Of the 260 members of the Senate and House of Representatives who submitted reports, 115 included overseas travel expenses relating to calls. Many Parliamentarians have two phones: their ‘official’ BlackBerry, and a supplementary phone. At intervals, that means two bills on the same date.

The Department of Finance reports do not separate out what costs were incurred for calls and for data on each occasion. But, it’s clear from the timing that the expenditure listed as ‘overseas calls’ relates to the use made of an Australian-registered phone during overseas. To illustrate, Malcolm Turnbull included costs for ‘Mobile PDA overseas calls’ for $13,068.04 on October 20 2011, a bill that would have fallen afterwards his European study tour to compare broadband infrastructure development in various nations between September 22 and October 7 of that year.

That single bill entry alone would have been enough to make Turnbull our biggest-spending politician when it comes to roaming. In actual fact, his total bill of $18,346.52 accounts over 13 per cent of the collected $140,723.19 that politicians spent on global roaming for overseas calls in those six months. That figure nearly $10,000 more than the number two politician on the list, Bernie Ripoll.

Despite Turnbull’s high spend, a role in the communications sector doesn’t automatically translate to expenses in this area: Senator Stephen Conroy spent $1147.19, about twice the median. Federal Treasure Wayne Swan had no expenses; his opposition counterpart Joe Hockey spent $1506.74 on overseas calls and data.

Turnbull’s bill is anyway you look at it a shocker, however as an overall proportion of communications spending, roaming is fairly low. Yet why can’t it be lower? Picture by Stefan Postles/Getty Images

While it would be easy to point the finger at politicians for some of these high bills, their choices are in fact surprisingly limited. A combination of security concerns and existing government-wide contracts mean that the average politician isn’t so free to do what you or I would do: purchase an overseas SIM card or use a separate VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) system just as Skype. They have to use their official devices and mandated applications and carriers and stick with their existing numbers, even if it costs a small fortune in the process.

There’s always room for bill negotiation after all. Malcolm Turnbull’s August 20 2011 bill included $5973.88 in overseas calls, however a refund was received on $1235.40 of those expenses. Carriers often lack accurate data and hope that businesses will pay bills without question, so it’s worth double-checking. This is a lesson we all should adopt

The briefest period during overseas

I knew someone that used his phone for the briefest period during overseas and got hit with over 1k in bills.

What I do find surprising is that anyone who held the title as “Foreign Minister” doesnt appear on this list.Do they use other, more secure communication devices??

He’s always claimed that wireless is better than wired for broadband infrastructure; this is just him sticking to his word.

More information: Lifehacker.com