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.
Picture by Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images
Many of us have experienced bill shock ourselves after 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, of course; most business people would hit up their employer to reimburse charges incurred for work while travelling, and the sting of those bills is substantially reduced if you can get someone else to pay. But 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 (44 per cent) included overseas travel expenses relating to calls. Many Parliamentarians have two phones: their ‘official’ BlackBerry, and a supplementary phone (which could be an iPhone or anything else they fancy). On occasion, 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. However, it’s clear from the timing that the expenditure listed as ‘overseas calls’ relates to the use made of an Australian-registered phone while overseas. For instance, Malcolm Turnbull included costs for ‘Mobile PDA overseas calls’ for $13,068.04 on October 20 2011, a bill that would have fallen after his European study tour to compare broadband infrastructure development in various nations between September 22 and October 7 of that year.
Hey Big Spender
That single bill entry alone would have been enough to make Turnbull our biggest-spending politician when it comes to roaming. Indeed, 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 is almost $10,000 more than the number two politician on the list, Bernie Ripoll (the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer).
Here are the top 12, all of whom claimed over $2000 for the six-month period — much higher than the median figure of $663.58.
- $18346.52: Malcolm Turnbull (Lib)
- $8932.12: Bernie Ripoll (Lab)
- $5776.60: Steven Ciobo (Lib)
- $5462.09: Tony Windsor (Ind)
- $3903.72: John Hogg (Lab)
- $3861.47: Kelvin Thomson (Lab)
- $3808.01: Steve Georganas (Lab)
- $3455.29: Alan Griffin (Lab)
- $2974.52: Jill Hall (Lab)
- $2666.82: Barry Haase (Lib)
- $2656.58: Michael Danby (Lab)
- $2293.08: Michael Keenan (Lib)
The reports don’t necessarily capture every expense: for instance, there are no figures quoted for Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, and those for Tony Abbott are relatively low ($1468.89). All are amongst the most-travelled of our representatives (during this period, Kevin Rudd was Foreign Minister).
Three of these members (Turnbull, Windsor and Ciobo) undertook overseas study tours during the relevant period.
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.
The lowest-spending politician amongst those who did claim was independent Rob Oakeshott. Despite his reputation for garrulousness, Oakeshott spent just $1.99 (sounds like he purchased an app, doesn’t it?). The other independents, Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter, had no overseas call expenses (unsurprising in Katter’s case, let’s face it).
These charts only include figures filed during the six-month period. The reports also include separate items for expenses incurred for the previous six months but invoiced afterwards; we’ve left those out. Given those factors, the $140,723.19 is a minimum figure: once the next set of reports emerge, the total for those six months is likely to be higher, and the information we have is always likely to be incomplete.
Turnbull’s bill is clearly a shocker, but as an overall proportion of communications spending, roaming is fairly low. But why can’t it be lower? Picture by Stefan Postles/Getty Images
An Inflexible System (And How To Beat It)
While it would be easy to point the finger at politicians for some of these high bills, their choices are actually 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 system such 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 however. Malcolm Turnbull’s August 20 2011 bill included $5973.88 in overseas calls, but 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.
Those strategies aside, the basics of avoiding global roaming charges are simple:
- Consider disabling roaming altogether so you’re not running up unexpected expenses. An alternate SIM provider such as GoSIM or TravelSIM can make sense if you’re visiting multiple countries. If you’re just going to one place, buying a local SIM when you arrive makes sense (just make sure your phone isn’t carrier-locked). The Pay As You Go SIM Wiki is a great resource for identifying deals.
- Whenever possible, make use of free Wi-Fi.
- Combine free Wi-Fi (or the Wi-Fi bundle in your hotel) with Skype, FaceTime or other applications that let you call loved ones free.
- If you do need to communicate on your phone, use text messages rather than calling.
- Disable voicemail so you’re not spending money catching up on messages.
Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money. Thanks to Anthony for suggesting the story idea!