Minister pays back taxpayer-funded wedding expenses
September 30, 2013
Senator George Brandis on Sunday repaid $1683.06 in taxpayer-funded entitlements he claimed to attend the wedding of his close friend, shock jock Michael Smith, despite saying he did nothing wrong in going to the private event on the public purse.
On Sunday Fairfax Media exclusively revealed the thousands of dollars Senator Brandis claimed to travel to the central coast of NSW for the wedding, which was also attended by then-senator Barnaby Joyce.
Mr Joyce claimed a lesser amount for a Comcar to the hotel he was staying at near the wedding reception.
In an unapologetic letter to the Department of Finance, Senator Brandis said he considered the costs were within parliamentary entitlements, ''since they were incurred in the course of attendance at a function primarily for work-related purposes''.
''I remain of that view,'' he wrote.
Senator Brandis, now the Attorney-General, said it was clear the relevant criterion for claiming entitlements was the purpose of the travel, not the nature of the event, but he said there could be ''uncertainty'' about the circumstances in which attendance at a private function for work-related purposes was within the entitlement.
He preferred to resolve that uncertainty in favour of the taxpayer and repay the money claimed, he said.
Senator Brandis had told Fairfax Media that his attendance at the wedding was ''primarily a professional rather than a social engagement'' in order to ''foster collaboration'' with Smith over the shock jock's work covering then-prime minister Julia Gillard and the Craig Thomson union credit card scandal. Smith left Fairfax Radio after a fallout over his plans to air controversial claims about Ms Gillard.
Senator Brandis was hotly in pursuit of former MP Mr Thomson, making the public case for prosecuting him, as well as the former Speaker Peter Slipper, who was later charged with misusing his taxpayer entitlements.
The story, and Senator Brandis' repayment of the money, lit up social media, with many questioning how attendance at a private wedding could be deemed a professional engagement.
Labor MP Kate Ellis tweeted: ''Oooooh, so the taxpayers have to pay now whenever we're hanging out with journos ..?'' and Paul Barry, host of ABC's Media Watch, tweeted: ''Joyce says many other pollies at Smith wedding. Did taxpayer pay for them too? Where's that guest list?''
Mr Joyce said he did not claim for the hotel or any flights to the wedding. He told Fairfax Media he was in Sydney for a media appearance on Andrew Bolt's radio show, then took a Comcar to the central coast hotel where he was staying for the wedding. The next day he returned to Sydney and flew to Moree for work.
''I never claimed a Comcar from the hotel to the wedding. I never claimed for the hotel or airfares,'' Mr Joyce said.
''I'm happy to reimburse costs related to any ambiguity.''
Prime Minister Tony Abbott was in Sydney on Sunday and not available for comment, despite pressure from media to make a statement on reported asylum seeker drownings off Indonesia's coast.
In footage that was widely posted on social media, Mr Abbott was chased through a car park by cameramen following his attendance at the AFL grand final breakfast on Saturday.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said it was not appropriate for Mr Abbott to do a doorstop about drownings at a sporting event.