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Oakeshott says 'bugger the numbers'
Independent MP Rob Oakeshott tells Fairfax that parliament must deal with Craig Thompson if the former Labor MP fails to fully explain allegations against him when he addresses parliament later this month.
Pivotal independent MP Rob Oakeshott has warned he will not baulk at action against controversial MP Craig Thomson, even if it costs the Gillard government a crucial vote in Parliament.
"Bugger the numbers," an angry Mr Oakeshott told the National Times. "It's not about the numbers. This is about dealing with the merits of the issue."
A Fair Work Australia (FWA) investigation report tabled in Parliament on Monday found Mr Thomson, who led the Health Services Union from 2002 until his election as the Labor MP for Dobell in 2007, spent almost $500,000 in members' funds on electioneering, escorts, lavish meals and cash withdrawals.
"I was angry that these findings are serious," Mr Oakeshott said. "I'm angry that it places a heavy burden on the Parliament itself."
Mr Oakeshott was involved in a closely watched conversation with Mr Thomson, who recently left the Labor Party, in the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon.
Mr Oakeshott said he advised Mr Thomson "basically to stand up and explain that if he does want to make a statement to the house on his own terms, to explain that – and to allow himself the opportunity to do that".
Mr Thomson denies all allegations against him.
Mr Oakeshott and fellow independent Tony Windsor have both expressed increasing concern about Mr Thomson's situation. Their dissatisfaction is being seen as a possible threat to Prime Minister Julia Gillard's government, given it relies on their support to survive.
On Tuesday, the Opposition proposed a motion that Mr Thomson be suspended for 14 sitting days and address the Parliament on the findings of the FWA report. The government defeated the motion with the votes of Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor.
After the conversation in Parliament yesterday, Mr Thomson stood and told the house that he would give MPs a full explanation of his actions in a fortnight's time.
"I was angry that these findings are serious. I'm angry that it places a heavy burden on the Parliament itself."
Mr Oakeshott said that if Mr Thomson's explanations are not satisfactory, "there are a number of different ways this could go. I think we cross that bridge when we come to it."
It is clear, however, that the independent MP wants Parliament to be seen as tough in these situations.
"My personal views is that those findings [in the FWA report] are damning enough that the Parliament does have to respond in some form," Mr Oakeshott said.
"You want to set some standards for ethical and moral behaviour, that if they're breached, parliamentary colleagues can make some judgments on."
The Thomson saga is all the more acute for the government following the sidelining of the Speaker, Peter Slipper, who is at the centre of a separate controversy concerning fraud and sexual harassment claims.
With Mr Slipper out of the chair, Labor has lost the vote of acting Speaker Anna Burke, making its hold on the House of Representatives even more tenuous.
Regional Affairs Minister Simon Crean - who deals regularly with Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor - said today he was not concerned about them dropping their support for the government.
"They are honourable people," he said.
Mr Crean said the independents had raised concerns about Mr Thomson in their discussions with him but that they had never said anything about pulling their support.
This morning, Mr Windsor cautioned against hasty judgments on the Thomson matter and noted that many people did not properly understand the issue.
"People want to hang Craig Thomson just on the suspicion," Mr Windsor told Sky News. "We can all make allegations about people."
The New England MP said he was keeping an open mind ahead of Mr Thomson's statement to Parliament. "Let's hear what he's got to say," he said.
Mr Windsor would not flag what action he would take if he was unhappy with the statement.
Md Gillard was also urging people to be cautious.
"I would just say we have to be a bit careful here," she told reporters in Canberra. "It is not the role of the Parliament to prejudge things that are going before the courts."
But Ms Gillard said that Mr Thomson should have made an earlier declaration to Parliament about the Labor Party paying his legal bills. Labor's NSW branch has confirmed it agreed to hire lawyers Holding Redlich in September last year to defend the Member for Dobell against allegations he misused Health Services Union funds.
Mr Thomson amended his pecuniary interest register on Wednesday night, but Ms Gillard said he should have done it sooner.
"Members of Parliament should be declaring appropriately things on time, not waiting and declaring late," Ms Gillard said.
Earlier, she told ABC radio that the ALP is not paying Mr Thomson's bills now that he is sitting on the crossbenches.
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