By Margo Kingston,
8 October, 2013
It looks like the Prime Minister is a serial cheat. It’s hard to imagine a bigger test of the integrity and fairness of our democratic institutions than that. Will the press gallery get forensic and press for answers from the PM and action from the authorities? Will the AFP investigate? Will the Finance Department audit his enormous expenses claims while in opposition to search for more rorting?
The AFP chose to prosecute Peter Slipper for falsely claiming less than $1,000 for an alleged private tour of wineries. It has now been revealed that Tony Abbott falsely claimed more than $1600 to attend the wedding of his friend Sophie Mirabella and the wedding of his then friend Peter Slipper. There is no ambiguity here – the claims were outside entitlement. Friends’ weddings are clearly private events, not ‘parliamentary, electorate, or official business’.
These post-election revelations follow my scoop before the election that he had wrongly claimed $9,400 to go on tour to promote his Battlelines book . When the issue was first raised, by Glenn Milne, Abbott insisted his claims were correct. “All travel undertaken by Mr Abbott has been within the entitlement,” his spokesman said. But when the Finance Department followed up the matter, his chief of staff Peta Credlin said the claims were made by a junior staffer who had “inadvertently booked for official travel rather than private” – Abbott reimbursed $6255.49.
But she said nothing about Abbott’s use of Com Cars for his book promotion tour, and a Finance audit forced the repayment of another $3,141.93. Com Cars can be used only for official or parliamentary business, and Mr Abbott, who used the cars, was personally aware of the circumstances and would have had to personally certify that they were so used.
I therefore lodged an FOI for the paperwork on the book tour claims. The Finance Department recently detailed the relevant documents, and said they could not release them until an affected third party, clearly Mr Abbott, was given the opportunity to dispute their release.
Surely the time has come, given Mr Abbott’s serial mis-claiming, for Finance to audit the enormous expenses claimed by Mr Abbott in Opposition, Rules for official business are loose, but serious questions have been raised about the propriety of his claims to compete in the 2012 Coffs Coast cycle challenge and today about his claims on taxpayers to participate in a 2012 Port Macquarie Ironman event.
So where does this leave the AFP?
When the AFP charged Peter Slipper, I broke the story that he had been treated differently than other MPs. Under the Minchin Protocol, if questions are raised about the propriety of an expenses claim, as they were for the book promotion expenses, Finance does not refer the matter to police if the MP concerned pays the money back. So when questions were raised about Slipper’s winery tour, he offered to repay.
It took a while to sort out, but I discovered that Finance had no knowledge of the Slipper allegations before the matter was referred to the AFP by an unknown informant. Because of this, the Minchin Protocol did not apply.
So who was this informant, and how did he or she obtain information about Slipper’s 2010 winery tour?
On 10 July I sought the information by FOI. The AFP had 30 days to process it, but asked for a very long extension to Sunday 8 September, the day after the election. I responded that the request was very narrow, and should be able to be done quickly. The AFP took the matter to the Australian Information Commissioner, who granted a shorter extension to 29 August:
“The grounds on which the extension was granted is that the matter is considered complex as it relates to current court proceedings involving a Member of Parliament and contains highly sensitive material. This will also involve a briefing to the Minister and notification to AFP National Media. This is also the first extension that has been requested on this matter.
“The AFP have provided our office with a timeline of how they plan to utilise the 20 day extension.”
But on 22 August, the AFP insisted on another month’s extension from August 29 to to September 28, because the affected third party had 30 days to object. I was miffed that it had not initiated that consultation much earlier, but the AIC said there was nothing it could do about it.
Since September 28 was a Saturday and the next Monday was a public holiday, the due date for a decision was October 1. The AFP did not meet that deadline either. My query at its failure to meet its own deadline was met with silence.
What to do? I contacted the AIC again, and was told that the AFP conduct amounted to a ‘deemed refusal‘ of my request, and that I could seek a review by them. I did this on 1 October.
On October 3 the AIC advised that their review would take a long time due to pressure of work, but that:
“I have spoken to the Australian Federal Police this morning and understand that a decision will be issued shortly.”
Instead, the AFP’s silence has continued until the perfect storm of Tony Abbott’s wedding claims.
Let’s be clear here. The Minchin Protocol determines only what the Finance Department does when it becomes aware of false claims – it’s a carrot and stick to get quick repayment on the threat of referral to police. The Slipper prosecution shows that anyone can refer such claims to the AFP, and the AFP can act on them regardless of repayments or offers to repay.
I understand that several people have referred the Abbott book tour claims and wedding claims to the AFP.
Will the AFP investigate? If not, why not? What is the difference between Slipper’s allegedly false claims on taxpayers and those of Abbott?
In my opinion, the press gallery failed to hold Abbott to account on his book claims, a big failure considering he put himself up as a person worthy to lead this nation. Only one reporter Bridie Jabour, a person not in the press gallery, pressed him to explain. His non-answers to her questions raised more questions, but the press gallery did not pursue them.
They have another chance with the wedding claims. We need to know exactly what expenses he claimed, and how he justified them to the Finance Department. Mr Abbott is in the dock for persistently receiving taxpayers money for private purposes, and he has so far failed, on his book tour and his weddings, to give any explanation that passes the laugh test.
Today I lodged an FOI request to the Finance Department to obtain the paperwork for his wedding claims and documents referring to his recent communications with Finance on the matter.
The Reith Telecard fraud back in 2000 showed how power can subvert justice – with the AFP, Finance and the DPP under extreme pressure (see Tracing the Telecard affair and More on the Reith Telecard affair and A Bugg in the farce of the Reith Telecard affair and The great Telecard cover-up.
Will it happen again?
Footnote: I was chief of staff in the Canberra bureau of the Sydney Morning Herald when the Reith scandal broke, and had just started Webdiary. If you follow the links you will see how the hard copy paper and Webdiary worked together to investigate the story. Webdiary allowed us to publish our questions to the major players and set out the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Government’s story. It let readers in on the process of trying to get the truth, and allowed them to contribute to the investigation process. Our work was crucial in un-peeling the onion and forcing the players to come out of hiding. Let’s hope the mainstream media uses its online capacity to do the same thing now. It’s about time!
Mr Abbott’s statements so far on his wedding claims
There are three statements by Mr Abbott so far. Amazing, isn’t it, how he gets away with not addressing the actual issues. Can the media, police and administrative arms of our democracy make him accountable?
Mr Abbott’s spokesman James Boyce said the PM had “utilised entitlements”.
“When the matter was brought to his attention, he immediately sought advice from the Department of Finance. The advice received said it was not possible to determine if the travel was within entitlement. For the avoidance of any doubt, Mr Abbott has repaid all costs associated with this travel totalling $1,094.64 and the matter is resolved.”
Prime Minister, why do Coalition members think it’s ok to use taxpayer funds to attend weddings and are you confident that the wedding of Sophie Mirabella was the only one that you used taxpayer funds to attend?
I’ll deal with that question in a sec but are there any further APEC-related questions? We’ll deal with that subject and then we’ll go onto general subjects. Karen?
Now, Alex, I’m going to go to your question because that might be the end, if you don’t mind, because I’ve got more things I need to attend to as part of APEC.
Look, when the controversy arose after the Michael Smith wedding, I remembered that some seven years ago, I’d been to a couple of weddings and so I went back and I checked. 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 and, look, 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.
But why would you claim it in the first place, Prime Minister, to go to a wedding?
Well, I was the Leader of the House of Representatives and the Leader of the House of Representatives has certain representational roles and I believed it was within entitlements. After the Michael Smith matter, I decided that I should check. I was advised that the matter was unclear and, in order to put the thing beyond doubt, the money was repaid. Thank you (ends press conference).
Tuesday, 8 October 2013
Mr Abbott did you claim travel entitlements to attend an Ironman event in 2011 and if so will you pay it back?
I’ll deal with non-APEC issues in a minute. Are there APEC issues and we’ll deal with them now?
Prime Minister I think we need to deal with the entitlements. I know you’ve got an appointment and we’ve got some questions.
Sure. Ok, well look, I think I’ve been asked about Ironman. Look, I believe that all of my claims have been within entitlement and let’s not forget that Port Macquarie was a marginal seat effectively and I want to assure you that I don’t go to marginal seats simply for sporting events although the sporting event in question was a community event. I think you’ll find that there were quite a few other community events involved in those visits.
Now, on the question of Pollie Pedal, I’m not sure whether anyone here has been on a Pollie Pedal with me, certainly there are quite a few journalists who normally do accompany me on Pollie Pedal and as – Tim Sweeney, thank you Tim for volunteering! Look, Pollie Pedal is a very intense engagement with the community. I mean, the great thing about Pollie Pedal is that it takes me to towns and communities, sometimes hamlets, that very rarely see a politician. I suspect that most of the places that I visited on this year’s Pollie Pedal would not have seen a politician other than their local Member in decades, let alone a Leader of the Opposition. I will do Pollie Pedal next year as Prime Minister. I am looking forward to it very much. It is a perfectly legitimate thing for a Member of Parliament to do and, yes, to the extent that it involves being away from home, I will claim travel allowance.
Kevin Andrews was on that Pollie Pedal with you on a number of occasions and hasn’t claimed, so is it possible that you have been cavalier with your travel expenses?
No, it’s not. It is absolutely not possible. Look, every Member of Parliament makes a judgment about his own role in these events and I lead the Pollie Pedal. I attend numerous community events as part of the Pollie Pedal. Not all of my colleagues do – not all of my colleagues do. Now, sometimes they do, but they certainly don’t always and Kevin may well have made a judgment that he was insufficiently involved in the community events associated not to claim. As I said, I invite every one of you to go back to look at the programme for this Pollie Pedal, previous Pollie Pedals and ask yourself the question, is this a frolic or is this a very serious act of community engagement? And I think you would have to conclude if you are fair dinkum that this is a very serious act of community engagement.
You pursued Peter Slipper very vigorously on the issue of misuse of taxpayer funds. Is it a bit hypocritical of you to use taxpayer funds yourself to attend this wedding?
Well, again, I was in Queensland for Consilium. Some of you may actually have been to Consilium in one or other capacity. It is an important annual event. I have been to quite a number of Consilium events. Usually, I make a speech at Consilium and so I attended his wedding on the way back from Consilium. Now, when attendance at weddings became an issue I looked again and the TA associated with the Slipper wedding – as opposed to the trip to Consilium – I thought, to avoid doubt, I should repay and I have done that.
Now, I’ll take one more question on this. Ok, Alex.
Given that you have paid the money back, surely you concede that this area needs to be reformed. Do you support the Greens’ call for integrity?
Fair question, Alex. Very fair question. Look, whenever entitlements become an issue there are calls for change. It doesn’t matter what the rules are, there is always going to be an argument at the margins. The point I make is that people should be careful and cautious when they claim entitlement. If there is any doubt, they should resolve the doubt in favour of the taxpayer and that is exactly what I have done.
Now, there is one final point I want to make on another subject before I go to meet Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. As you might remember during the election campaign, I went to the Cloudbreak mine in Western Australia with Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest. There I announced that we would be reviewing Indigenous employment programmes and that Andrew Forrest would lead that review on behalf of the Government. I am pleased to say that that has now been confirmed and finalised, Andrew Forrest will be leading a review of Indigenous employment programmes. I think this is very important. I want to congratulate all of the Australian businesses that have been involved in the Australian Employment Covenant. I think this does offer a new beginning to Indigenous people who want to have a serious career in the private sector and I want to thank Andrew Forrest for the commitment that he has shown.[ends]