Labor has called on Tony Abbott to consider a review of the parliamentary entitlements system as the controversy over travel claims escalates.
The prime minister on Tuesday dug in behind thousands of dollars in travel allowances he claimed for events including the Port Macquarie ironman and his annual charity Pollie Pedal, arguing they were acts of deep community engagement, not personal “frolics”.
While defending those expenses, Abbott has repaid more than $1,700 in entitlements related to his attendance at two weddings in 2006, including the nuptials of former House of Representatives Speaker Peter Slipper.
But a former Liberal frontbencher, Philip Ruddock, who attended the Slipper wedding, declined on Tuesday to follow suit.
“Look, I have thought about it overnight and, quite frankly, my judgment at the time was that what I did was appropriate and I still think it was appropriate,” Ruddock told the ABC, arguing that he was not a friend of Slipper’s but was present at the wedding because of shared parliamentary business.
The travel controversy also snagged a prominent Labor figure on Tuesday. Former frontbencher Mark Dreyfus has repaid $466 in travel expenses he claimed while on a ski trip in Perisher valley 2011. The former attorney general’s office said the claim was an administrative error reflecting a misunderstanding about the Victorian Labor MP’s whereabouts on the nights in question.
The repayment is doubly embarrassing for Dreyfus, who had attacked the government for dubious travel claims on radio on Tuesday morning. He subsequently apologised.
At the Apec talks in Bali – the prime minister’s first major global outing since the September election – Abbott has been peppered with questions from reporters about his use of taxpayer-funded allowances.
Labor’s interim leader, Chris Bowen, said on Tuesday that if the government wanted an inquiry into the entitlements system to provide more clarity and certainty for MPs, the opposition would support that move. “I would call on them to consider those steps,” Bowen said.
Abbott confirmed in Bali on Tuesday that in addition to claims for attending colleague’s weddings in 2006, he had also claimed $1,300 in allowances for a trip to Port Macquarie in November 2011, which included him competing in an ironman event in the coastal city.
The prime minister acknowledged he claimed expenses totalling several thousand dollars for his annual Pollie Pedal – a cycling event which raises funds for charity. He said this practice was entirely appropriate because a number of political events were also on the schedule.
“I believe that all of my claims have been within entitlement,” Abbott told reporters in Bali.
Of the Port Macquarie trip, he said: “Let’s not forget that Port Macquarie was a marginal seat effectively and I assure you I don’t go to marginal seats simply for sporting events, although the sporting event in question was a community event. I think you’ll find there were quite a few other community events involved in those visits.”
Abbott said the annual Pollie Pedal involved intense community engagement. “It takes me to towns and communities, sometimes hamlets, that very rarely see a politician,” he said.
“I will do Pollie Pedal next year as prime minister. I am looking forward to it very much. It is a perfectly legitimate thing for a member of parliament to do, and yes, to the extent that it involves being away from home, I will claim travel allowance.”
Abbott was asked whether colleagues who attended Pollie Pedal with him also claimed allowances. The prime minister said that was a matter of personal judgment. “I lead the Pollie Pedal, I attend numerous community events. Not all my colleagues do,” the prime minister said.
Abbott told reporters the judgment to be made regarding the appropriate use of taxpayer-funded allowances was: “Is this a frolic or a very serious act of community engagement?”
Bowen said he had no issue with Abbott claiming travel expenses for Pollie Pedal, but he said the prime minister should consider repaying the travel claim for Port Macquarie. He said a sporting event was “a personal issue, a personal expense”.
“What’s clear here is we have a pattern of poor judgment,” Bowen said.
Labor’s Anthony Albanese also attacked Abbott for hypocrisy in relation to Slipper.
“What’s extraordinary is while the Coalition, day after day, were getting stuck into Peter Slipper and trying to make an extraordinary and concerted attack on this person, that someone didn’t click and say, ‘Well actually I claimed travel allowance to go to this guy’s wedding so perhaps I should not be quite as forthright as I’m being with regard to Mr Slipper’s use of entitlements,’ ” Albanese told the ABC.
Slipper, who was a Liberal MP before being recruited by Labor as Speaker in the 43rd parliament, is facing court proceedings about his use of entitlements. “All the issues in question relate to when [Slipper] was still a member of the Coalition,” Albanese said on Tuesday.