Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard sidelined a pair of scandal-tarnished parliamentarians yesterday in a move aimed at restoring public confidence in parliament.
The move distances Gillard’s unpopular minority government from the unrelated scandals without cutting loose two crucial supporters who help it maintain its tenuous grip on power.
Gillard had previously stood by parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper and Labor Party lawmaker Craig Thomson, who are under separate criminal investigations. Both deny all allegations.
“I believe a line has been crossed about respect for the parliament, and that has given me sufficient concern that I believe it was the right thing to act and to take the decisions that I have taken,” Gillard told reporters at Parliament House.
“I feel keenly that Australians are looking at this parliament, and at the moment they see a dark cloud over it,” she said.
Gillard said Slipper had agreed to stand aside as House of Representative speaker until allegations that he fraudulently misused taxi payment vouchers and that he harassed a male adviser for gay sex are resolved.
Thomson agreed to sit in parliament as an independent lawmaker while prosecutors examine allegations that he misused a union credit card on prostitutes and other personal expenses while he was a union official, she said.
Gillard’s minority government is expected to maintain its tenuous control over the House of Representatives, with Thomson continuing to support it as an independent, despite his suspension from the ruling party.
Thomson later said he hoped to be cleared of the allegations “reasonably soon” and would remain loyal to Labor.
Nick Economou, a Monash University political scientist, said the prime minister was responding to concerns within Labor ranks that her unpopular government needed to distance itself from the two scandals.
Labor Senator Doug Cameron welcomed Thomson’s suspension more than three years after an investigation into his credit card use began.
“It’s been a major diversion for the government,” Cameron told Australian Broadcasting Corp television.
Slipper stepped aside as speaker a week ago after former adviser James Ashby filed complaints in the Federal Court of sexual harassment and fraud.
However Slipper had only agreed to stand aside during the police investigation. He released taxi vouchers last week that he said proved that Ashby’s allegations of fraud during limousine rides in Sydney in January and February were false.
Gillard and her senior ministers had agreed that there was no precedent for public officials to stand aside because of civil suits such as sexual harassment.
The government had hoped that Slipper would return to the speaker’s chair when parliament resumes May 8.
Slipper said in a statement yesterday that “the criminal allegation has been shown to be a fabrication and there is no longer any reason to step aside.”
“I believe, however, that it is imperative that the dignity of the Parliament be upheld,” he said, adding that he would ask his deputy to act as speaker when parliament resumes.
Slipper defected from the conservative opposition in November last year to accept the prestigious A$324,000 (US$426,000)-a-year job, which has limited voting rights.
His defection cost the opposition a vote in the closely balanced House of Representatives.