Lake Macquarie City Council is spending an estimated $34,500 on a “study tour” to Asia and Europe for the mayor, deputy mayor and a top executive staff member.
Singapore, Amsterdam, London, Tel Aviv, Copenhagen, Eindhoven, Bristol and Manchester are on the itinerary for Cr Kay Fraser, her deputy Luke Cubis and deputy CEO Tony Farrell before they return on August 9.
The cost covers accommodation and travel expenses, including several business class flights – though organisers of the International Children’s Games will pay for Cr Fraser’s lodgings in Jerusalem for the six nights she attends the event in support of Lake Macquarie athletes.
Council has defended the three week trip, saying it is a fact-finding mission as part of the Smart Cities technology and digital innovation agenda.
But the spending has been criticised as unnecessary, particularly in the context of Lake Macquarie’s seven-year 57.48 per cent rate increase.
Boolaroo Action Group spokesperson Jim Sullivan said the tour was “just a junket” and he believed ratepayers would get no benefit.
Mr Sullivan said the amount spent represented only a small fraction of council’s budget, but he argued it was a waste of money that was “half a year’s salary for some workers”.
“There is no need to travel the world for this type of information any more - it’s at your fingertips [on the internet],” he said.
“We’ve faced huge rate hikes over the last seven years, some of the highest in the state.
“For ordinary working people who are struggling to meet day-to-day costs of electricity, gas and put food on the table, that’s a terrible waste of ratepayers’ money with no demonstrable benefit.”
In a message from Amsterdam on Friday, Cr Fraser told the Newcastle Herald the tour was tied in with council’s response to evolving technology and a changing economy.
She said that response would “have a substantial impact on our residents’ livelihood and the city’s prosperity”.
“Being a smart city is about using technology to improve things for your community, whether it is enhancing existing services or creating new infrastructure and experiences that improve people’s lifestyles, creating business and employment opportunities or simply making things run more smoothly,” Cr Fraser said.
“The tour offers the opportunity to see other cities’ similar experiences first-hand.
“[It] has been very busy and enlightening so far, with lots of productive meetings and discussions about practical applications of smart city technology that organisations are rolling out in their areas.”
Liberal councillor Jason Pauling said “the proof will be in the pudding” in terms of how the delegates used their experience from the tour when they returned to Lake Macquarie.
“If they learn ideas, concepts or strategies that can help our city reinvent itself then, yes, most definitely I think the funds are worth it. If it’s nothing more than a junket then, yes it’s an absolute waste,” he said.
When asked whether she thought the spending was appropriate, state Charlestown MP Jodie Harrison – a Labor colleague of Cr Fraser and a former Lake Macquarie mayor – said Cr Fraser had explained to her “how important [the tour] is for Lake Macquarie as a smart city”.
“Every public official should have value for money at the front of their mind when making decisions about spending taxpayer or ratepayer dollars,” Ms Harrison said.
A council spokesperson said Cr Cubis and Mr Farrell would continue with meetings while Cr Fraser attended the International Children’s Games.
The spokesperson said council’s general fund was paying for the trip and only intercontinental flights had been booked as business class, which was acceptable under council’s expenses policy.
She said the amount was an estimated total because some accommodation had not yet been confirmed.
“Already, the party has visited Singapore, where they met with representatives of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Centre for Liveable Cities and the Housing and Development Board,” she said.
“They have visited facilities such as the Singapore Art Museum and Art Science Museum, which are integrating cutting-edge interactive technology and education programs into their exhibitions to improve digital literacy while engaging and attracting visitors, and creating a base to accelerate the development of creative industries.”