UNCERTAINTY surrounding the functioning of the Gillard government intensified yesterday as a crucial independent MP sought to capitalise on the precarious parliamentary numbers, and two others said they would consider whether Peter Slipper should stand aside as Speaker while all charges against him are heard.
The Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie held talks with Tony Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and Labor's chief parliamentary tactician, Anthony Albanese, about his proposed poker machine reforms and other policy issues in what sources said was a bid to leverage the tightened parliamentary numbers to his advantage.
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The government is confident of a rapid resolution to the investigation into criminal allegations by a staff member, James Ashby, that Mr Slipper gave blank Cabcharge vouchers to a limousine driver on three occasions this year. Mr Slipper has stood aside as Speaker only while this specific claim is investigated.
The Herald has learnt that Mr Slipper wrote to the Department of Finance yesterday requesting copies of any blank Cabcharge vouchers submitted in his name, in an apparent attempt to prove his innocence quickly.
But the Coalition leader, Mr Abbott, is demanding Mr Slipper stand aside while a civil sexual harassment claim, also brought by Mr Ashby, is investigated. This is likely to take much longer.
The independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor said they would listen to the Coalition's arguments on this point. If they agreed with Mr Abbott, Mr Slipper would still be stood aside - and unable to vote - when Parliament reassembles for the budget on May 8. This would leave Labor with the barest of majorities and reliant on Mr Wilkie's vote to get bills passed.
Meanwhile, a wider examination of Mr Slipper's Cabcharge returns found numerous big claims, including regularly spending more than $300 on limousine rides between his home on the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane Airport, more than once making the trip three times in a day.
A statement of claim lodged by Mr Ashby details explicit text messages in which Mr Slipper asks whether his aide wants to ''get closer'', and claims allegedly put to the Howard government of a 2003 video in which Mr Slipper climbed through the bedroom window of a different male staff member and hugged him ''in an intimate fashion''.
Speaking during a visit to Singapore yesterday, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, distanced herself from the fraud and sexual harassment allegations but defended Mr Slipper's appointment as one based on merit. She said Mr Abbott had questions to answer about why the Coalition had covered up Mr Slipper's behaviour for years and had preselected him nine times.
''I don't claim to know Mr Slipper personally or well, but I formed a professional judgment about his ability to do the job,'' Ms Gillard said.
The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, said Mr Abbott was behaving more like ''the leader of a lynch mob''.
Mr Abbott accused Ms Gillard of ''making light'' of the harassment claims. ''You know, one of the really worrying features of the Prime Minister's attempt to explain herself away … is that she is essentially making light of sexual harassment … She just doesn't get it when it comes to the seriousness of this and the appalling cloud which now hangs over not just the Parliament but her and her government,'' he said.
At the meeting with Ms Credlin, Mr Wilkie is understood to have again raised the prospect of the Coalition supporting a new push for a $1 maximum bet on poker machines. She rejected the idea.
Mr Slipper has denied all allegations.
- with Richard Willingham, Paul Bibby and Bianca Hall
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