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COUNTRY CLAIMS CRISIS: ICAC to investigate all entitlements dating back 10 years

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UPDATED | The state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption has launched a major investigation into all claims made over the past decade by parliamentarians under a controversial country members’ allowance scheme, which has seen Liberal MPs forced to pay back tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars in a deepening scandal.

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The Marshall Government has been under siege on the entitlements issue since questions about the living arrangements and allowance claims of Upper House president Terry Stephens snowballed into a broader scandal engulfing several other Liberal MPs, including Ministers Stephan Knoll and Tim Whetstone.

Early this month, the Opposition referred Stephens’ case to police, who sent it on to anti-corruption commissioner Bruce Lander.

But this week, the release of 10 years’ worth of expense claim forms to parliament reignited the controversy, with several Liberal MPs conceding they’d made “administrative errors”, some dating back several years.

In a statement released late today, Lander declared: “I intend to make further enquiries in respect of all claims for the Country Members Accommodation Allowance by any Member of Parliament over the last 10 years.”

“I think it is in the public interest that I make this statement in light of intense media speculation and numerous enquiries made to my office and to other agencies in respect of the subject matter of this statement,” he said in the statement.

“Earlier this month I commenced an investigation into the conduct of a number of Members of Parliament in respect of claims made by them for payment of the Country Members Accommodation Allowance.

“I have discussed with the Auditor-General any activities he may be conducting relevant to the matter to avoid duplication… the Auditor-General has advised me that he does not intend at this time to investigate the matter in light of his office’s statutory responsibilities to audit the financial statements of all statutory public authorities.

“In due course the Auditor-General and I will discuss what recommendations can be made for improvements to the manner in which claims are made for an allowance.”

Knoll this week agreed to pay back $29,574, insisting he was doing so only because of “ambiguity” over the allowance rules, which were amended by the Remuneration Tribunal in November 2018 to stipulate eligible MPs must “incur actual expenditure”.

Whetstone has repaid just $6,993 but amended 92 nights worth of claims, blaming “administrative errors” but insisting he was still eligible for the allowance on other dates he had not previously claimed.

One of those withdrawn claims coincided with dates he was on a taxpayer-funded 12-day study trip to the United States.

On one of the nights for which Knoll billed taxpayers he posted a photo of himself and his family attending the cricket at Adelaide Oval.

He has conceded he claims the allowance for nights he stays at his parents’ inner-city home, with his father Franz admitting they have a private arrangement for board.

First-term backbencher Fraser Ellis is repaying $42,130 – all his claims since the tribunal tightened the eligibility criteria – while Adrian Pederick and Peter Treloar have both conceded they have amended prior claims after a recent audit, but insisted they were still entitled to a full entitlement.

“I made three adjustments and I had plenty of spare nights that I could adjust to and that’s what I did,” Pederick told ABC Radio yesterday, while Treloar said: “I did find some errors, some anomalies but what I also found were a number of days where I could have legitimately claimed and didn’t.”

State MPs who live further than 75 kilometres from the Adelaide GPO are entitled to payments of $234 for each night they spend in Adelaide on official business – capped at 135 nights per year or $31,590.

Asked in parliament today by Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas whether he would sack his ministers over the repaid claims, Marshall said: “There is no doubt in my mind that there have been errors here.”

“They are unacceptable and I have made it very clear to my team from day one when this came to light that these errors are unacceptable… but I do not believe there has been deliberate dishonesty.

“I do not believe that this is a Government which is trying to sweep these problems under the mat. In fact, by contrast, what we are doing is shining a light on these issues.”

A harried Knoll did not respond to questions from media as he entered parliament today, while Marshall told reporters he “absolutely” backed his beleaguered frontbencher.

The involvement of the ICAC will spark even greater controversy for the Government, but could also prove a circuit-breaker given the Opposition’s determination to score a political scalp over the issue.

Under strict ICAC laws, ongoing investigations are subject to secrecy beyond what the commissioner chooses to unveil.

“This investigation will be conducted in private as is required by legislation… for that reason I do not intend to make further comment,” Lander said today.

The Liberals are particularly affected by the allowance scandal given the number of their members who serve regional electorates.

Labor has just two members currently claiming the allowance – Whyalla-based Giles MP Eddie Hughes and Legislative Councillor Clare Scriven.

Shadow Attorney-General Kyam Maher today said in a statement the Opposition “welcomes the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption’s investigation into the use of the Country Members Accommodation Allowance”.

“The Opposition notes Mr Lander’s statement that the Auditor-General is not looking into this matter – these remarks stand in stark contrast to the Premier’s claims this week that the Auditor-General was looking into the matter,” he said.

“Why did the Premier suggest the Auditor-General was looking into this, when it is clear he was not?

“Over recent weeks, Steven Marshall and his Liberal colleagues have refused to answer basic questions or take responsibility for their use to taxpayers’ money… it is still incumbent on Steven Marshall to show leadership and sack these ministers.”

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