JULIA Gillard is flying home to renewed muttering over her political judgment and her leadership as the government struggles to defend its position on the besieged Speaker, Peter Slipper.
Mr Slipper yesterday tried to rebuff questions about the Cabcharge dockets he released on Thursday night to profess innocence after allegations of fraud and harassment levelled by his staffer, James Ashby.
The dockets had sequential serial numbers despite the trips spanning a fortnight; and the records were handwritten, rather than the standard practice for MPs of electronic transactions.
But despite the irregularities, Labor's Anthony Albanese dug in, saying the documents answered the allegations of improper conduct. ''The charge isn't whether Peter Slipper or any other member of Parliament is unusual,'' Mr Albanese told Sky News. ''The charge here is that Peter Slipper engaged in fraudulent conduct and handed over blank Cabcharges. What has shown by this documentation provided by the Department of Finance is that that allegation is not correct.''
A statement by Mr Slipper said limousine drivers used manual dockets because some lacked electronic facilities, and the sequential serial numbers were irrelevant. ''What is relevant is the journey and when it took place, not the serial number of the docket.''
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, meanwhile, issued an explicit warning that he would either move or support a motion of no confidence against Mr Slipper if he tried to resume the Speaker's chair before all allegations - civil and criminal - had been dealt with.
Labor MPs are increasingly concerned at political damage to the government, while ministers rallied publicly behind the Prime Minister. Defence Minister Stephen Smith declared the Labor leadership question ''over''. Mr Albanese is understood to have taken steps yesterday to ensure the cross benchers were prepared to pass the government's looming budget despite the controversy.
Mr Ashby has alleged Mr Slipper rorted entitlements by handing over signed but otherwise blank Cabcharge dockets to a driver subsequently identified as Antwan Kaikaty.
But after a day of trying to establish exactly what the Cabcharge dockets did show, The Age only uncovered more anomalies. Despite Mr Kaikaty acknowledging he was the driver on all three days, the dockets recorded different driver authority and taxi numbers for each of the three days.
Nine of the 13 dockets released by Mr Slipper are from the three days referred to in Mr Ashby's April 20 Federal Court statement. Seven of the nine use an Australian Business Number owned by a taxi fleet owner, Nicolas Mikhael.
Mr Kaikaty has said via his lawyer that he was the driver for all three days - January 27 and February 5 and 11 - but said he did not know Mr Mikhael. When The Age contacted Mr Mikhael at his home yesterday and asked him about Mr Kaikaty he said: ''No, I don't know him.''
With Dylan Welch, Michelle Grattan and Judith Ireland