Ashamed Australia fails to steer clear of sleaze

Howard clean-up stalls as MPs face charges, writes Robert Milliken

Sydney - There is no sign of a Martin Bell in white armour riding to the rescue. But Australia is proving that Britain is not alone with its worries about sleaze.

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.

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