Setback for Gillard as speaker steps aside


AUSTRALIA’S parliamentary speaker stood aside yesterday following claims of sexual harassment and fraud by a former aide, dealing another blow to the ruling Labor party that helped him secure the job.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph revealed on Saturday that James Ashby, a former assistant, had filed a claim in the Federal Court accusing Peter Slipper, who is married with children, of “unwelcome sexual advances” and misusing taxi receipts after travel in a luxury limousine.

The receipts were allegedly signed by Mr Slipper but other details, including the fare, dates and pick-up destinations, were left blank, according to court documents cited by the newspaper.

Mr Slipper, MP for the Sunshine Coast, said it was appropriate for him to stand aside while the allegations, which he denies, were “resolved”.

“Any allegation of criminal behaviour is grave and should be dealt with in a manner that shows appropriate regard to the integrity of our democratic institutions and to precedent,” Mr Slipper said in a statement.

“The allegations are incorrect and, once it is clear they are untrue, I shall return to the speakership.” The Australian Federal Police said they were assessing the information.

Mr Slipper’s decision to step aside is another blow to the Labor government, which is languishing in the polls, and to Julia Gillard, Australia’s prime minister, who helped broker the deal that saw Mr Slipper become speaker.

In a statement Ms Gillard said it was “appropriate” for Mr Slipper to step down while the allegations were investigated. “It is also appropriate for all parties to note the processes under way and treat them with respect,” she said.

Mr Slipper became speaker on the last day of parliament in 2011. In order to take the job, he had to resign from the opposition Liberal National coalition. This effectively gave Labor two extra votes in the 150-member House of Representatives – it took one vote from the Liberal party and saved the government from losing one of its MPs to the job.

The speaker does not vote except in the event of a tied ballot.

But the two-seat majority was reduced in January when Andrew Wilkie, an independent MP, withdrew his support for the government after a row over a promise to tighten gambling laws.

That majority has now all but disappeared because Anna Burke, the deputy speaker and Labor MP, will become acting speaker. Fortunately for Ms Gillard, parliament does not meet again until May 8th, by which time the fraud allegations against Mr Slipper may have been dismissed.

In order to win a no-confidence vote, the Liberal party would need to secure the backing of Mr Wilkie and other cross-benchers who prop up the government.

Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition, refused to comment on the government’s majority, choosing instead to focus on Ms Gillard’s judgment.

“This is a prime minister whose only standard appears to be: ‘What will help my government to survive’, given that it was the prime minister herself who engineered the removal of speaker Harry Jenkins and who insisted that Mr Slipper take the chair in order to shore up her numbers in the parliament,” he said.

“There were fears late last year that this would all end in tears and yet again the prime minister’s judgment has turned out to be fatally flawed.”

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)