Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard

How our former PMs are using taxpayer help even out of power

AN audience with the Pope, a meeting with a foreign intelligence service, and VIP passage through airports are just some of the things former prime ministers have called on Aussie diplomats to arrange for them overseas.

Julia Gillard has requested the most assistance of any former prime minister since retiring from politics, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade figures.

Australia's diplomatic corps helped her on sixteen occasions in the past year, far more than both Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd who each had help on five trips.

Ms Gillard has had help on 91 trips in total in just over four years since retiring from politics and taking the helm of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), an organisation that aims to boost education prospects for children in developing countries.

Former PM Julia Gillard, with partner Tim Mathieson.
Former PM Julia Gillard, with partner Tim Mathieson.

That includes eight trips to the United States, two to Canada, four to the United Kingdom and visits to Israel, Italy and Belgium in 2017, as well as trips to a host of other countries in past years including Kenya, Rwanda, Denmark, China and Qatar.

Diplomats smoothed Ms Gillard's way through airports, arranged high-profile meetings - including an audience with Pope Francis - and provided briefings on countries she visited.

DFAT arranged "prima fila" tickets (front row seats) to a Papal audience in May, where she was able to speak with the Holy Father briefly about his advocacy for disadvantaged children's education worldwide.

A spokesman for Ms Gillard said she travelled frequently in her capacity as Chair of the Board of Directors of the GPE.

Meanwhile, DFAT staff arranged a series of high profile meetings for Mr Abbott in 2017, including a catch up with the Prime Minister of Jordan and the country's General Intelligence Directorate - one of the top intelligence agencies in the Middle East.

He visited Israel to receive an honorary doctorate and Egypt to visit Australian troops.

DFAT staff also officially notified Egyptian authorities of his trip to the dangerous region of Sinai, as well as providing transport and help through airports.

On a trip to Poland in March, DFAT's top diplomat in the region went with Mr Abbott to a meeting with the country's Defence Minister, a dinner hosted by senior members of the country's ruling party and attended Mr Abbott's speech at Warsaw University.

Mr Abbott has requested DFAT assistance on overseas trips 20 times since 2015.

"Like other former prime ministers, Mr Abbott regularly receives invitations to travel overseas in an official capacity," a spokesman for Mr Abbott said.

"Flights and accommodation are met by the inviting organisation.

"When travelling for work - and where appropriate - Mr Abbott supports the efforts of our embassies and interests overseas by including embassy staff in his meetings with foreign government officials."

There were fewer and less complex requests from Mr Rudd in 2017 than his blitz of 16 trips to 11 countries the year before, when he was lobbying, unsuccessfully, to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations.

He met with DFAT's top diplomat in Mexico in January and staff provided transport to and from airports and hotels, smoothed his way through airports and rescheduled cancelled flight bookings on trips to India, the United States, the UK and Japan throughout the year.

In 2016, he had requested diplomats help arrange meetings with South African President Jacob Zuma and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phye, visas to Angola and Botswana and a place for him at a service by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

John Howard called on DFAT for assistance on four trips over the year, including two to the UK, and trips to New Zealand and the US.

He requested help arranging meetings with then NZ Prime Minister Bill English and transfers through airports.

DFAT has previously confirmed former prime ministers pay for their own travel and there is no cost to the Department if the assistance is given in the normal course of their daily work.