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Coalition MPs are endangering their reputations as economic managers by charging taxpayers for personal indulgences such as wedding travel, warns former leader John Hewson.
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RAW VISION: Rinehart, Joyce party at wedding
Barnaby Joyce billed taxpayers for a trip to India where he, two other Liberal MPs and Gina Rinehart watched the granddaughter of her business partner marry in a lavish wedding.
Dr Hewson's call for higher standards follows a string of expenses scandals involving senior members of the Coalition, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, billing taxpayers to attend weddings.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said MPs should use their judgment and err on the side of not making expense claims if they had any doubts. Dr Hewson said: "I don't believe in unlimited access to the public purse."
Fairfax Media can also reveal that a cycling enthusiast from Queensland, Labor MP Bernie Ripoll, enjoyed several stages of the Tour de France during a taxpayer-funded ''study tour'' to inspect the country's bicycle infrastructure. The study tour cost taxpayers $5474 but Mr Ripoll said he used five days of ''personal time'' to watch the cycling event, as he was entitled to do.
On Sunday, Fairfax Media revealed that three Coalition MPs - Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce and Teresa Gambaro - had claimed more than $12,000 in travel expenses to return from a lavish wedding in India where they were guests of billionaire Gina Rinehart.
Mr Abbott also confirmed he repaid $1095 spent in travelling to the wedding of former colleague Sophie Mirabella seven years ago. The return of the money was prompted by media inquiries last week.
Dr Hewson, a former Liberal leader, said any new prime minister must set clear standards for the team as the ''fish rots from the head''.
Coalition MPs couldn't ''run on the line that [they] want to control government expenditure'' and at the same time waste taxpayers' money on their personal lives.
''I think that in the early days of any government you need to set the standards,'' Dr Hewson said.
But former Howard government minister Peter Reith disagreed, describing the wedding expense scandals as ''petty'' and arguing that politicians should be entitled to unlimited travel.
''I don't understand how you can have a system which says that some things that ministers do are part of business and others aren't,'' Mr Reith said.
You'd be a mug if you didn't go to a shock jock's wedding if you're invited.
''I think it's ridiculous putting limits on where ministers can go.''
Expenses scandals marred the early days of the Howard government with seven cabinet ministers resigning after breaching rules that required ministers to divest shares in portfolios they oversaw and be truthful in Parliament.
As a minister Mr Reith racked up a $50,000 phone bill at taxpayers' expense, which he repaid.
Asked whether taxpayers should foot the bill for MPs to attend weddings, Mr Reith said: ''Since when is that not being part of being a politician, you know, going out for lunch with a shock jock or going to his wedding? You'd be a mug if you didn't go to a shock jock's wedding if you're invited.''
In the past week, Attorney-General George Brandis and Agriculture Minister Mr Joyce reimbursed taxpayers after Fairfax Media revealed they had used public funds to attend the wedding of their friend, broadcaster Michael Smith, in 2011.
Mr Joyce said on Monday that political opponents were trying to ''level the score'' after the Coalition won the federal election by exposing his past travel claims.
''That's what happens in politics,'' he told Fairfax Radio in Melbourne.
''We never did anything illegal. You did everything that you were basically entitled to do.''
Mr Joyce said his decision to take a study tour to Malaysia after the Indian wedding actually made it cheaper for the taxpayer since Ms Rinehart paid for half the trip.
He said the department could have also knocked back his claim and not approved his travel expenses.
''These things obviously happened years ago, not that that's an excuse,'' he said on Monday.
He said expense entitlements needed more clarity and reform.
''There's a grey area there,'' he said. ''I can understand why there needs to be a greater oversight about this and I've got no problems about that happening.''
Mr Turnbull said the rules had been ''a little bit ambiguous at the time'' and it was not uncommon for politicians to reimburse money. ''The better course of action is to err on a more conservative side and if there is any doubt then don't make a claim,'' Mr Turnbull told the ABC's Insiders on Sunday.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard's office has previously defended her use of a VIP jet to attend the wedding of her press secretary in Byron Bay last March, saying Ms Gillard had other commitments in the area.
Last month documents released under freedom of information laws showed Ms Gillard repaid $4243 in 2007 when she was deputy opposition leader in relation to her partner Tim Mathieson's private use of a taxpayer-funded car.