Sexual Harassment Claims Denied by Australian Parliament Speaker

Australia’s parliamentary speaker, Peter Slipper, denied allegations in a national newspaper that he sexually harassed a male adviser and misused taxpayer-funded taxi vouchers.

The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that a 33-year-old assistant filed a claim in the Federal Court accusing Slipper, 62, of “unwelcome sexual advances” and “unwelcome sexual comments.” According to the lawsuit, the speaker also handed signed, blank travel vouchers to a Sydney limousine driver this year, the Daily Telegraph said. Australian police said they will probe the allegations of expenses fraud.

“All allegations are denied,” Slipper told reporters as he passed through an airport, in footage broadcast by Sky News today. Slipper didn’t reply to an e-mail or a voice mail left at his electoral office in Buddina, Queensland, seeking comment.

Slipper’s ability to remain in office may be key to helping Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor government retain control of parliament. Since Slipper left the opposition Liberal-National coalition to become speaker last November, Gillard’s majority has been trimmed to one seat.

Labor’s numerical advantage in the 150-member House of Representatives would evaporate if a party lawmaker replaced Slipper as speaker. Even if he stays, the government risks being tarnished, said John Uhr, director of the Centre for the Study of Australian Politics at the Australian National University.

‘Not Good’

“It’s not a good look,” said Canberra-based Uhr, who specializes in government ethics. The government “will try and look the other way and hope they can still be in office at the time of the next election. It’s not going to be easy.”

Support for Gillard’s Labor Party hovered 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 Tony Abbott’s Liberal National coalition by 19 percentage points, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on April 17.

Abbott yesterday called on Slipper, who in his role enforces rules and ensures lawmakers follow procedures, to step down while an investigation takes place.

“Yes, the speaker is entitled to the presumption of innocence but he does have quite a lot of explaining to do,” Abbott told reporters yesterday in Queensland, according to a transcript sent by his office. “The prime minister, to uphold the integrity of the parliament, needs now to require the speaker to step down until these matters are resolved.”

‘Legal Proceedings’

Government ministers have declined to comment on the allegations. Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Wayne Swan, speaking on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s “Insiders” program today, said “we should respect those legal proceedings.” Politicians shouldn’t comment on legal matters, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said yesterday. That’s also the government’s position on the matter, said a spokeswoman for Gillard, who flies to Singapore later today.

According to the claim filed in court on April 20, Slipper used a limousine 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 Daily Telegraph reported.

“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 today.

Gillard formed a government in 2010 after the nation’s closest election in seven decades ended Labor’s majority. In November 2011, she gained a two-seat majority after then-speaker Harry Jenkins, a Labor lawmaker, quit and was replaced by Slipper.

Gillard’s majority was cut to one in January when independent lawmaker Andrew Wilkie pulled his support, saying Gillard had broken a promise to tighten gambling laws.

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