Canberra Speaker skids into scandal

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The Independent Online
IN THE midst of the worst economic downturn and the highest unemployment for 60 years, Australians have been preoccupied by one issue: the drama over Leo McLeay, Speaker of the Parliament, falling off a bicycle.

The uproar was not so much over the fall, as how he was quietly awarded compensation of Adollars 65,000 ( pounds 28,000) by the government.

Mr McLeay is an MP with the ruling Labor Party and a long-time colleague of Paul Keating, the Prime Minister. The affair might normally have gone unnoticed, but with a general election looming it has shot into headlines and threatens to rock Mr Keating's campaign strategy.

The central question being asked is: why did the Speaker receive such swift and generous compensation after he sued the Joint House Department - a parliamentary body of which he is jointly in charge - when thousands of ordinary Australians often have to wait years for redress?

Mr McLeay's accident happened in 1990 when he hired a folding bicycle from the health and recreation centre at Parliament House in Canberra. On his ride through the capital's leafy streets with his son, the bike hit a bump and collapsed. Mr McLeay broke his arm and suffered facial and hand injuries.

His compensation payment came to light only in December, but more details are leaking out. According to a report from the Joint House Department, an official warned a member of Mr McLeay's staff that the bike 'may not be suitable for such a big person'. The staffer ignored the warning with the retort: 'We know all about bikes.'

Even more curious was the revelation that Adollars 10,000 of Mr McLeay's payment was compensation for his being unable to resume work as a technician with Telecom Australia - a job he left 17 years ago to enter Parliament, and one to which he once said he was unlikely to return.

The opposition parties, which outnumber the government in the Senate, the upper house, threatened to set up a Senate inquiry. Mr McLeay said he would refer the payment to an independent inquiry. Meanwhile, his doctor said the accident left Mr McLeay unable to pick up a glass at receptions for fear of knocking it over.