Australian Parliamentary Speaker Steps Aside in Gillard Blow

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard, Australia's prime minister. Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Australia’s parliamentary speaker, Peter Slipper, stepped aside after allegations of sexual harassment and expenses fraud, weakening Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s grip on power and ability to pass legislation.

Deputy Speaker Anna Burke, a lawmaker from Gillard’s Labor party, will replace Slipper as he contests the claims, he said in a statement yesterday. He denied allegations in a Federal Court lawsuit that he made “unwelcome sexual advances” toward a male adviser and misused taxpayer-funded travel vouchers.

Gillard’s minority government has been relying on Slipper to boost its numbers in the lower house since he defected from the opposition coalition to become speaker in November. His decision to step aside to fight the claims means Labor, already battling near record-low poll ratings, faces losing its one-seat majority when parliament reconvenes next month and debates the annual budget on May 8.

“It makes it more difficult for Gillard to manage the parliament with the speaker tainted, and it makes her government look as if it’s almost unmanageable,” said John Wanna, a professor of public administration at the Australian National University in Canberra. “It keeps clouds hanging over the Gillard government but it’s not necessarily terminal.”

Police Probe

In the April 20 lawsuit, James Ashby, who started working for Slipper in December, alleges he made “unwelcome sexual comments” and “unwelcome suggestions of a sexual nature” between January and March 2012. He also accuses Slipper of handing signed, blank travel vouchers to the driver of a vehicle in which they travelled. Australian police said they will probe the allegations of expenses fraud.

“The allegations include both a claim of criminal behavior and a claim under civil law,” Slipper said in his statement. “It is appropriate for me to stand aside as speaker while this criminal allegation is resolved.”

Slipper, who in his role enforces rules and procedures, said he will return to the position when the criminal allegations are proven to be false.

Gillard’s ‘Integrity’

Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal-National opposition, said the matter raised fresh questions about the “integrity” of the government and the prime minister.

Gillard backed Slipper in the speaker’s role in a “desperate bid to shore up her own numbers and seems to indicate this is a prime minister who will do anything, anything at all to assist her position in the parliament,” Abbott said in an interview with the Seven Network today.

Gillard, in Singapore for talks with government officials, said in a statement yesterday that Slipper’s decision to step aside was “appropriate.”

The opposition leader sought to link the Slipper affair to another that’s overshadowing the government -- allegations against Labor lawmaker Craig Thomson. He denies claims he used a union credit card to pay for prostitutes before entering parliament in 2007.

Abbott is demanding that Gillard pressures Thomson to cooperate with police inquiries and to ensure a report by Australia’s workplace tribunal, which is probing the affair, is released immediately.

Minority Government

Support for Labor sat near a record low in an opinion survey published last week before an election required by the end of 2013. Labor’s support of 29 percent trails Abbott’s coalition by 19 percentage points, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper April 17.

Gillard formed a government in 2010 after the nation’s closest election in seven decades ended Labor’s majority. She has had to rely on the support of independent and Greens lawmakers to secure the 75 votes needed to pass legislation in the 150-member House of Representatives.

The Greens party and two of those independent lawmakers, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, today reiterated their support for the government, the Associated Press reported.

In November 2011, Gillard gained a two-seat majority after then-speaker Harry Jenkins, a Labor lawmaker, quit and was replaced by Slipper. That majority was cut to one in January when independent lawmaker Andrew Wilkie withdrew his allegiance to Gillard, saying she broke a promise to tighten gambling laws.

‘Knife Edge’

Australia’s constitution only allows the speaker to vote if the lower house is tied. Gillard has now lost Burke’s vote on the floor two weeks before the government seeks to pass a budget attempting to deliver a surplus in the 12 months through June next year.

“They’re going to just slide away from the narrow control onto a knife edge where it would be a day-by-day game,” said John Uhr, director of the Centre for the Study of Australian Politics at the Australian National University.

According to Ashby’s claim, Slipper used the same vehicle for travel in Sydney in January and February and on three occasions passed several signed dockets to the driver, without detailing the cost of the trip.

“The Australian Federal Police is aware of the new allegations of fraud and will be taking action to assess this information,” a spokeswoman for the AFP said by phone yesterday.

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