MP's suicide attempt casts a pall over Australian politics

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The Independent Online
The attempted suicide of a senior opposition MP accused of fiddling his expenses has inflamed the debate in Australia over standards in public life, and cast a shadow over Prime Minister John Howard's attempts to improve them. Robert Milliken looks at a sorry affair.

Australia's political world was rocked yesterday after a suicide attempt by a leading opposition MP who has been under fire in Parliament for making false travel allowance claims when he was staying at his mother's house in Tasmania.

Nick Sherry, deputy leader of the Labor opposition in the Senate, the upper house, was rushed to hospital in Canberra yesterday after a staff member found him apparently unconscious in his flat.

British-born Mr Sherry, 42, had left a note overnight at Parliament House in the bureau of a news agency, in which he apologised for behaving "stupidly". The agency raised the alarm when he failed to answer the phone at his Canberra flat. Mr Sherry was described as conscious and in a stable condition last night.

The drama came after a week of uproar in the Australian parliament over a version of political sleaze knows as the "travel rorts" affair ("rort" is an Australianism for fraud or rip-off). The conservative coalition government, led by John Howard, and the Labor opposition, led by Kim Beazley, have hurled accusations over MPs abusing their right to claim daily allowances when on parliamentary business.

The affair has already claimed the careers of three ministers who resigned a week ago after revelations that they had paid back large sums of invalidly claimed allowances, or had covered up such repayments. Three civil servants also quit over their involvement, one of them Mr Howard's most trusted adviser.

Over the past few days, the government has turned the attack on to Labor, particularly Mr Sherry who comes from Tasmania. They accused him of claiming a total of A$43,000 (pounds 19,000) for official stays in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, when, in fact, he was staying for free with his mother.

But Mr Sherry's suicide attempt yesterday brought a chill to the scene. The affair has highlighted a mounting cynicism among Australians towards their political leaders, particularly as Mr Howard came to power in March last year promising new standards of propriety in public life.

It has now emerged that many MPs saw abuse of the travel allowance scheme as a way of making up for what they regard as their low rates of pay. A federal backbench MP in Australia receives a basic salary of about A$80,000 (pounds 36,000) before allowances.