Wednesday 21 February 2018

Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott forced to repay expenses he used to attend weddings

Tony Abbot
Tony Abbot

Jonathan Pearlman

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, has been forced to repay travel funds he used to attend two weddings of colleagues, joining several other MPs engulfed in a growing British-style expenses scandal.

 Mr Abbott said the legitimacy of his £1000 of expenses was "unclear" but was accused of “breathtaking hypocrisy”. The expenses were used to attend two separate weddings of Liberal party colleagues in 2006, when Mr Abbott was a minister.

The embarrassing revelations came as a growing list of MPs have been found to have used parliamentary entitlements to attend weddings.

Two new cabinet members, George Brandis and Barnaby Joyce, were last week forced to repay expenses of about £1400 to attend the wedding in 2011 of a close friend, Michael Smith, a radio presenter.

Mr Joyce, the foreign minister Julie Bishop, and another Coalition MP, have also come under pressure after they accepted an offer by Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, to attend the lavish wedding in India of the granddaughter of one of her business partners. The MPs were flown over by Mrs Rinehart in a private jet and said it was a “study tour”, setting up various meetings and then claiming expenses of about £7000 to return to Australia. Mr Joyce, who said the 10,000-guest wedding was “absolutely mind-blowing”, also claimed his wife’s travel expenses.

A Labor MP, Bernie Ripoll, a cycling enthusiast, went on a taxpayer-funded study tour to France in 2011 which happened to coincide with the Tour de France. Mr Ripoll attended various stages of the tour, saying: "If I was close by and happy to be there, that's all the better.”

Mr Abbott said the travel scandal made him recall that he had used funds to attend a wedding and he went to check his expenses. He then sought advice on the expenses from the finance department, which was unable to clearly state whether they were legitimate.

"I was advised - because I sought advice on this - that the entitlement was unclear and so in order to avoid doubt I paid the relevant money back,” he said.

"That's what people should do: they should act within entitlements, they should err on the side of caution, and, if there is any doubt, they should act immediately to clear the matter up. That's exactly what I have done."

One of the weddings attended by Mr Abbott was that of former Liberal MP Peter Slipper, who later quit the party and came under heavy attack by Mr Abbott over his own use of public funds. Mr Slipper said the claims and ensuing criminal charges against him had “destroyed my life” and accused Mr Abbott of “breathtaking hypocrisy”.

‘‘I am before the courts for $964 when it seems to be carte blanche for Coalition figures simply to be able to write cheques for reimbursement,’’ he said.

‘‘This whole thing has destroyed my career and since April last year it has destroyed my life.’’

The scandal has led to calls for a reform of parliamentary entitlements and greater clarity on the uses of public funds. Britain’s expenses scandal led to wide-ranging reforms, including measures to ensure expenses were no longer self-policed by MPs.

“"This goes to judgment of senior Liberals claiming travel expenses for what are very clearly, very clearly not legitimate travel expenses,” said acting Labor leader Chris Bowen. “We all accept that mistakes can happen but this goes to a pattern of poor judgement and a pattern of a lack of transparency and disclosure.”

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