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Federal MPs of all parties are frantically checking their taxpayer-funded travel claims as Tony Abbott defends an Ironman event as a legitimate expense and a Labor attack on the government backfired.
The expenses scandal took a farcical turn when Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus demanded an investigation into Coalition travel spending - only to reveal two hours later that he had wrongly billed taxpayers for accommodation on a family ski trip.
Legitimate expense: Tony Abbott justifies his participation in the 2011 Ironman event in Port Macquarie. Photo: Peter Gleeson
Mr Dreyfus said he would repay $466 for two nights' travel allowance he claimed in August 2011 while skiing in Perisher. ''I am sorry for the mistake,'' the shadow attorney-general said.
Despite the growing controversy, Mr Abbott dismissed calls to reform the entitlements system and said he was justified in billing taxpayers thousands of dollars to attend sporting events and charity bike rides because he was engaging with the community.
To compete in the Port Macquarie Ironman in 2011, Mr Abbott claimed $941 for flights and $349 for overnight accommodation for an event he described as ''official business''. Mr Abbott said the Ironman was a ''community event'' in a marginal seat and he did not travel ''simply for sporting events''.
The Prime Minister also claimed travel allowances to cycle in the Pollie Pedal charity fund-raiser each year, saying it was a ''serious act of community engagement'' rather than a ''frolic''. Labor backed the cause as worthwhile.
A Fairfax Media analysis shows Mr Abbott claimed more than $23,000 on trips associated with the 2012 Coffs Coast Cycle Challenge, the 2011 Bathurst V8 Supercar Race, the 2010 Melbourne Cup, the 2010 Boxing Day Test match at the MCG and the 2011 Birdsville Races.
Payback: Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce paid back $650 after it was revealed that he attended the wedding of Michael Smith on taxpayers money. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Asked about these claims, Mr Abbott's office responded with a list of Labor politicians using Commonwealth cars and planes to attend sporting events.
These included Julia Gillard and Simon Crean attending the AFL grand final in 2011; Stephen Conroy going to the Australian Open tennis in 2012; and Wayne Swan travelling by VIP aircraft to the NRL and AFL finals while acting prime minister in 2010.
How it all began
The expenses scandal began when Fairfax Media revealed nearly a fortnight ago that taxpayers met the costs for Attorney-General George Brandis and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to attend the wedding of their friend, shock jock Michael Smith.
Senator Brandis repaid $1700 after the story broke and Mr Joyce handed back $650.
Fairfax also revealed that Coalition MPs Julie Bishop, Teresa Gambaro and Mr Joyce together claimed more than $12,000 in ''overseas study'' payments to return from an Indian wedding they had attended as guests of the billionaire Gina Rinehart.
The scandal prompted Mr Abbott to reimburse taxpayers for his wedding-related travel, including $1095 to attend former colleague Sophie Mirabella's nuptials in 2006 and $609 for Peter Slipper's marriage in the same year.
Mr Abbott's publisher has previously repaid $9400 in travel expenses claimed on a tour in 2009 to promote his book, Battlelines.
Mr Slipper, who is facing court over the use of Commonwealth Cabcharge vouchers for a winery tour, told Fairfax Media he wanted the same rights as Mr Abbott had to repay disputed funds.
''Alternatively, everyone else from Abbott down . . . should be charged as I have been and sent off to the Australian Federal Police and Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions,'' Mr Slipper said.
''Australians believe in equal treatment under the law and not special treatment for Coalition heavyweights who have honed writing cheques in reimbursement of disputed claims into an art form.''
Amid calls from the Greens and independent senator Nick Xenophon to reform the expenses system, acting Labor leader Chris Bowen said some MPs were ''exploiting any ambiguity'' in the definition of ''official business''.
Reluctant to launch a full-throttle attack, given past controversies on both sides of politics, Mr Bowen said it was up to the government to propose changes to the system, which Labor would consider.
He urged the Prime Minister to think about repaying the Ironman costs but said he had no problems with the charity-focused Pollie Pedal payments.
Labor leadership candidate Anthony Albanese on Wednesday defended Mr Abbott over his use of entitlements, telling ABC radio it was ''probably fair enough'' for him to claim taxpayer-funded travel and travelling allowance to compete in an Ironman event at Port Macquarie because he had reportedly been invited by the breast cancer charity the McGrath Foundation and had also visited a hospital while he was in the area.
''If that's the case, commonsense should apply and as leader of the opposition (at the time), it's probably fair enough,'' Mr Albanese said on Wednesday.
''I don't seek . . . to make political points for the sake of it on this.''
Mr Albanese said that Labor would be prepared to give ''every positive consideration'' to any proposals the government put forward to reform the system.
Labor had sought to capitalise on the controversy over Coalition expenses, with Mr Dreyfus denouncing behaviour by Coalition MPs" claiming inappropriate entitlements.
Mr Dreyfus called for an inquiry by the Department of Finance. ''Coalition MPs, including the Prime Minister, don't understand that a private wedding is not official business,'' he told Fairfax Media.
But two hours later, he owned up to his ski trip on a weekend between two parliamentary sitting weeks, saying his staff had not known he had left Canberra for those nights.
Fly economy class: Xenophon
Senator Xenophon said millions of dollars could be shaved off the $35 million spent on politicians' travel each year by insisting MPs and Senators fly economy class on flights of two hours or less.
Interviewed on ABC TV's 7.30 program on Tuesday night, Senator Xenophon also proposed politicians who make a claim they are not entitled to be required to pay back double the amount.
''That should focus all our minds in relation to dealing with this,'' Senator Xenophon said.
To improve transparency, Senator Xenophon suggested MPs be required to provide a short statement on the purpose of each trip, which would be published online within 30 days.
''I think that itself would go a long way into cleaning this whole system up,'' Senator Xenophon said.
Senator Xenophon admitted he had once had to repay money for using self-drive hire cars instead of taxis when in Canberra. He said he was trying to save taxpayers money but later discovered ''under the quirks of the rules'' it was not allowed.
Call for more transparency
Former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chief Allan Fels called for more transparency.
''The big point I think is that all expenses of that kind should be put on their website straight away and on a couple of other Government websites so anyone can look immediately see what's been spent and claimed,'' he told ABC News 24.
''I think that would self-police, to a huge extent.''
Professor Fels, who was a member of an independent committee that reviewed the system of entitlements, also backed the idea of MPs being required to fly economy for short trips.
''Within Government ranks like public servants, their automatic access to business class travel has been cut back quite heavily under fiscal stringency so maybe it should go on to members of parliament, particularly for the lesser trip of under two hours.''
with Lisa Visentin