Australian prime minister Julia Gillard has dismissed as “disgraceful” claims that she was making light of sexual harassment by allowing the parliamentary speaker to keep his job while facing allegations that he pressured a member of staff for sex.
House of Representatives Speaker Peter Slipper stepped aside on Sunday while police investigate allegations that he misused taxi payment vouchers while travelling by limousine in Sydney this year.
The worker, James Ashby, 33, is also suing Mr Slipper in the Federal Court for sexual harassment, alleging that he only employed him as a media adviser in pursuit of sex.
Mr Slipper, 62, who is married with two adult children from a previous relationship, denies all the allegations.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott has said both the criminal investigation and the civil case should be resolved before Mr Slipper returns to the speaker’s chair.
Ms Gillard “is essentially making light of sexual harassment” by arguing that Mr Slipper could serve as speaker while facing the civil charges, Mr Abbott said.
She responded saying: “That’s a disgraceful allegation and it’s exactly what we expect from Mr Abbott: continued negativity.”
The government argues that while senior officials should stand aside while facing criminal charges, there was no precedent for them to do so in the face of civil suits.
Government figures hope Mr Slipper will be quickly cleared by police of the fraud allegations so that he can return to the chair before Parliament resumes on May 8. The opposition wants a no-confidence vote against him, but would need support from several independents to win.
Mr Slipper defected from the conservative opposition in November last year to accept the prestigious speaker’s job, which has limited voting rights. While he is sidelined, a member of the ruling centre-left Labour Party will take the seat, effectively depriving the government of a vote in the closely balanced parliament.
The Slipper affair is an unwelcome distraction for Ms Gillard’s government, which has long trailed the opposition in opinion polls. Many commentators say the government faces a crushing defeat at elections due next year.