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If Slipper is guilty — then what about Abbott?

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If Peter Slipper does end up in gaol for defrauding the Commonwealth, the next signings on Tony Abbott’s Battlelines book tour may be from an adjoining cell, writes Dr Benjamin Thomas Jones.

Battlelines

JESUS CHRIST once said:

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)

The Australian political version would be: let he without dubious expenses sling the first mud.

If what goes around truly does come around, then Tony Abbott may live to regret his attacks on Peter Slipper.

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives has faced the full wrath of the Liberal Party since choosing to defect in November 2011. Despite being unofficially told that he would not be given pre-selection for his seat of Fisher, the fact that he effectively gave the ALP two extra votes on the floor (the Liberals would lose Slipper’s vote while Labor would gain former Speaker Harry Jenkin’s vote) was seen as an unacceptable betrayal.

Less than four months into the role, Slipper’s former staffer James Ashby accused him of misusing cab charges and of sexually harassing him. The episode became hugely embarrassing as crude text messages became public. With his old friend and former ministerial colleague in the Howard government, Mal Brough, waiting in the wings for Slipper’s seat, Tony Abbott went on the offensive. The presumption of innocence was never afforded to Slipper by the Coalition or the scandal-hungry media.

Abbott claimed Julia Gillard showed bad judgement in appointing Slipper to the Speaker’s chair. The allegation was absurdly hypocritical. Had John Howard also shown bad judgement when he made Slipper his parliamentary secretary in 2002? Had Abbott shown poor judgement when the Liberal Party gave Slipper pre-selection in 2010? The accusations of sexual harassment and cab charge abuse were thrown out as groundless, politically motivated attacks. Australian Federal Police have since accused Slipper of wrongly charging $1,194 to the Commonwealth when visiting local vineyards in Canberra in 2010. He offered to pay this money back but the Department of Finance has broken its own protocol by refusing to allow the money to be refunded.

Slipper’s alleged “crime” is derisory.

Ministers are entitled to compensation for travel, food and accommodation needed when carrying out their duties. The line can be hazy. If two MPs have dinner together at a vineyard is that business or pleasure? What if they are friends and they discuss both government policy and their kids? With MPs having many complex entitlements, it is understandable that some overcharging occurs. To keep things in perspective, over half a million pounds was paid back by British MPs in the wake of the 2009 parliamentary expense scandal. Slipper’s thousand dollars or so seems very minor in comparison.

The leader of the opposition has no sympathy for Slipper and is still questioning his character and presuming his guilt.

“Why did the prime minister ever think that the gentleman in question was fit and proper to be the Speaker of our country?” demanded Abbott on Tuesday.

But if Slipper is not fit and proper to be Speaker then Abbott is definitely not fit and proper to be prime minister.

Tony Abbott released Battlelines in 2009. It was a book designed to set the tone for his leadership and outline his vision for Australia. From his Sydney seat of Warringah, Abbott flew to Canberra to discuss the book at the National Press Club on 28 July. While it can probably be argued that the Press Club visit was legitimate business – even if it was to discuss and sign copies of his book – how would he explain his trip to Melbourne on 3 August for a dinner event at a Dymocks bookstore? Abbott returned to Melbourne as well as visiting Brisbane and Perth to promote his book. In all, he charged $5,689.36 to the Commonwealth for business that seems personal not parliamentary. That was only the air fares. Including drivers to and from his book events, the taxpayer has put $6,651.96 towards the promotion of his book.

Was Abbott conducting parliamentary business? Certainly, that will be his defence.

The Dymocks events in Melbourne and Perth are particularly damning. The timing of the trips strongly suggests that book promotion was the primary purpose. It is possible, of course, that Abbott also conducted legitimate business in between signing copies of Battlelines – just as it is possible Slipper conducted legitimate business in between glasses of Clonakilla winery’s famous shiraz viognier. From the point of view of the tax payer, keeping Slipper boozed up is certainly cheaper than Abbott’s self-promotion.

PolliePedals
Expenses claims by Tony Abbott during his 9-day cycling trip from Gold Coast to Sydney in 2011.

Common sense would suggest that both cases are murky and that both MPs should be allowed to simply pay the money back.

InfringementNotices
Infringement notices from Tony Abbott's care - 11 in two months. (Note: the $25 fee is a departmental processing charge and doesn't indicate value of fine or offence.)

Common sense, unfortunately, is not the stock in trade of either politicians or the media. If Slipper is found guilty he will be forced to resign from parliament and to forfeit his parliamentary pension of $157 000 per annum. He could also face jail time for his $1,194 oversight.

As a devout Catholic, Abbott would be wise to follow some more advice from Jesus, “judge not lest ye be judged”. If Slipper does end up in the Slammer, the next stop on the Battlelines book tour may be an adjoining cell.

Editor's note: Abbott is one of Australia's most expensive politicians. He apparently has a "liberal" attitude towards public expenditure for his own use. For instance, he claimed $345 a day expenses for every day on the 2011 Pollie Pedals ride (1-9 April, 2011) listing it all as ‘Official Business’. 

Abbott also received 11 infringement notices on his private plated vehicle — some apparently at times when he could not have been driving it himself:

[See the full breakdown of Tony Abbott's 2011 expenses by clicking here.]

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