Ashamed Australia fails to steer clear of sleaze
Howard clean-up stalls as MPs face charges, writes Robert Milliken
Thursday 10 April 1997
The Australian government was embroiled in controversy yesterday, as three MPs aligned to the ruling Liberal-National coalition faced police investigations and charges over alleged misuse of their parliamentary expenses.
John Howard, the prime minister who came to power last year promising new standards of probity in public life, has been embarrassed by the sleaze, known as the parliamentary "rorts" after an Australian colloquialism meaning rackets or deceptive practices. Mr Howard's shame has been compounded by the fact that he had spent weeks defending one of the MPs amid mounting public clamour for the politician's resignation.
That MP is Mal Colston, a member of the Senate, the upper house of federal parliament, who was forced to repay almost A$7,000 (pounds 3,300) last month after an inquiry revealed he had wrongly claimed allowances for trips. Mr Colston has been accused of flying 3,000 miles across Australia from Brisbane to Perth, on parliamentary expenses, just to claim frequent flyer points, of claiming travel allowances on 43 days since 1993 when he did not travel, and of using a chauffeur-driven government car when he already had a self-drive car funded by taxpayers.
The defence of Mr Colston by Mr Howard and some senior ministers was based on sheer political opportunism. Mr Colston once belonged to the Labor Party, but he left it in a huff last year when it refused to back him for the job of deputy president of the Senate.
Mr Howard's conservative government needed Mr Colston's vote in the Senate, where it does not have an absolute majority. It supported the newly independent Mr Colston for the job. In return, he has supported the government in getting some of its most controversial legislation through the Senate, especially its bill to privatise one-third of the state-owned telecom.
But Mr Howard's refusal to condemn Mr Colston's behaviour over his use of public money backfired spectacularly on Tuesday night. It came when Christine Smith, a member of Mr Colston's staff who had earlier taken the blame for his false travel claims, recanted. In a statement that her lawyers sent to the Senate, Miss Smith said her earlier version - that she had kept erroneous records - had been made under pressure from Mr Colston. "I now wish to advise that my statement was incorrect," she said. "I was not responsible for preparing the senator's travelling allowance claims."
Miss Smith said she had initially agreed to help Mr Colston because she believed him when he told her that the errors were genuine, and that the row was part of a Labor Party campaign to discredit him.
Since Miss Smith's revelation, the prime minister has referred the Colston "rorts" to federal police, and has called on Mr Colston to resign as Senate deputy president. The loss of Mr Colston's support in the Senate could have serious long-term consequences for Mr Howard's legislative programme.
At the same time, federal police this week laid fraud charges against Michael Cobb, a backbench MP from the National Party, the junior partner in the government coalition, and Bob Woods, a former Liberal Party member of the Senate. Mr Woods resigned from parliament last month amid a row over the "rorting" claims and a separate sex scandal.
Both men have been charged under the Crimes Act with making false claims over their parliamentary travel allowances. They face prison sentences if convicted.
The affair of the "rorting" MPs has tarnished the Howard government's claims to lift standards of public behaviour.
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
- 3 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 Average penis size revealed: Scientists attempt to find what is 'normal' to reassure concerned men
California teacher appears to have hanged herself in her classroom
The City of the Monkey God: Archaeologists claim to have found city lost for 1,000 years in remote Honduran jungle
Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
Bubonic plague-carrying fleas found on New York City rats
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a critical role within the secur...
£20000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is an established, ...
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Exciting new position available at an independ...