Then-member for Fisher Peter Slipper.
Then-member for Fisher Peter Slipper. Brett Wortman

BIG READ: The Peter Slipper saga

THE spotlight the Sunshine Coast Daily turned on Peter Slipper's use of parliamentary expenses in 2010 was prompted by two things and arguably marked the beginning of the end of his long political career.

The first was the Federal Parliament's decision in 2010 to provide greater transparency around the use of parliamentary entitlements, throwing real light on the extraordinary level of spending by the Member for Fisher. The second was the huge interest generated in the United Kingdom by similar increased scrutiny.

By 2010 Mr Slipper already had a long history of his interpretation of his entitlements bumping up hard against guidelines in place to constrain their use.

The merger of the Liberals and the Nationals in Queensland in 2008 protected all sitting MPs from pre-selection challenge at the following election. Despite some considerable local disquiet about his behaviour it meant the Member for Fisher went to the 2010 federal election unchallenged as the LNP candidate.

He won with a 2.28% increase in his primary vote and 53.53% (+0.6%) on preferences, the lowest swing the Coalition experienced to it in Queensland. Three years later he was gone, embroiled in scandal, his use of parliamentary expenses the subject of formal Australian Federal Police charges for which he was ultimately exonerated on appeal after an earlier conviction relating to $900 worth of travel to wineries outside the ACT disguised as journeys within the national capital.

In April, 2012, with the emergence of James Ashby's sexual harassment allegation, attention switched to other matters. Mal Brough and Wyatt Roy both became embroiled in the long-running saga.

It was on expense claim issues that he was convicted although ultimately dismissed on appeal. That outcome prompted submissions by the AFP to an independent inquiry into the use of parliamentary expenses that "the arbiter in determining parliamentary business is the member or senator themselves”.

The Australian National Audit Office formed a similar conclusion observing "ambiguity” created by the MP's successful appeal meant parliamentary business was whatever the parliamentarian said it was.

The inquiry headed by former Department of Finance secretary David Tune this year delivered a suite of recommendations meant to hold parliamentarians to greater account and redefining "entitlements” as reconcilable "work expenses”.

By the 2013 election Peter Slipper had won and lost the role of Speaker, was no longer the LNP candidate having been replaced by Mal Brough, and as an independent secured a lowly 1.55% of the primary vote. Mr Brough, who was to become ensnared in the soap opera nature of Mr Slipper's life won, increasing the LNP hold on Fisher to 59.75% after preferences, a positive swing of 5.62% in a field of 10 candidates.

Expense rorting charges laid against Mr Slipper may have been for only $900 but followed a history of him being required to repay money incorrectly claimed.

While parliamentary secretary to the minister for finance in 2003 he was asked to refund $7785.67. In 2007 he was again found to be outside the entitlement and was required to repay another $2889. In total he was required to repay more than $14,000 in wrongly claimed entitlements.

However it was the parliament's commitment to deliver greater transparency on MPs' spending habits that led to the release in mid-2010 of a more detailed account including amounts claimed for family travel, MPs' own spending for air travel, taxi, private vehicle and ComCar use, office and printing expenses and amounts spent on magazines and publications.

The detail revealed Mr Slipper spent $6000 in 15 days on taxis between July and early August, 2009, while parliament was not sitting and when there were no meetings of either of the two committees on which the backbencher then sat. Despite invitations to explain the parliamentary or electoral business that led to the expenses being incurred, Mr Slipper would only say his spending was within the entitlement guidelines.

In 2011 a petition sponsored by the Daily and signed by 2700 residents calling for a full audit of Mr Slipper's expense claims was presented to parliament by Member for Fairfax Alex Somlyay.

Department of Finance documents showed Mr Slipper had claimed more than $1.8million in office and other entitlements since 2007. His claims in just one six-month period amounted to $640,000 including a new office fitout and showed he had billed taxpayers $16,038.75 for taxis. In just 30 days his taxi and Commonwealth car bill ran to $12,000.

The announcement this month the Australian Federal Police had closed an investigation into alleged improper access of Mr Slipper's official diary by Mr Ashby, putting an end to any speculation about Mr Brough's involvement has brought to a close five years of turmoil surrounding both men and Mr Slipper.

Mr Slipper declined to discuss the issues with the Sunshine Coast Daily, Mal Brough has provided an insider's view about the greed in the way some in parliament use their entitlements and Mr Ashby talks directly to what drove the allegations he raised.

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