Prime Minister Julia Gillard has asked embattled Labor backbencher Craig Thomson to quit the party and move to the cross-bench.
She has also asked Peter Slipper to step aside as Speaker for a further period of time. Previously she said he should only stand aside while criminal allegations of Cabcharge misuse are investigated. He is also facing a civil court action over allegations of sexual harassment of a staffer, which is likely to drag on for a longer period.
Ms Gillard made the announcement in Canberra this morning in an effort to assert her leadership and clear the air over the twin scandals plaguing the government.
She spoke ahead of a press conference planned by Mr Thomson outside his Dobell electorate office in Tuggerah on the NSW Central Coast at 1pm AEST.
“I understand the matters concerning Mr Thomson and Mr Slipper have caused Australians to become concerned about standards in public life today,” Ms Gillard told reporters.
She said Australians were looking at Parliament and “seeing a dark cloud”.
Ms Gillard said she spoke to Mr Thomson last night after returning from overseas.
“I indicated to Mr Thomson I have decided it’s appropriate for him to no longer participate in the Labor caucus,” she said.
Ms Gillard said it had been her call to ask Mr Thomson to quit the party, and she had not consulted cabinet about the issue. She said Mr Thomson had told her he’d been reflecting deeply on his position and felt moving to the cross-bench was the best course of action.
Mr Thomson has been the focus of claims of misuse of Health Services Union funds during his time as its national secretary.
He allegedly used a union credit card to pay for prostitutes, lavish meals and cash withdrawals during his time as head of the union.
He is among several former and current HSU officials who are the subject of two Fair Work Australia investigations, police probes in NSW and Victoria, and an internal inquiry by former corruption buster Ian Temby QC.
Mr Thomson denies any wrongdoing during his time with the union from 2002 to 2007, before being elected to Parliament.
‘A line has been crossed’
The move changes the make-up of the Federal Parliament, reducing Labor to 70 MPs after Deputy Speaker Anna Burke takes over the Speaker’s chair from Mr Slipper.
Ms Gillard said, “I do believe a line has been crossed here and because a line has been crossed, I have acted.
“I actually think it is a judgment call on what is right to do in a complicated set of cirumstances … about what best marks respect for the Parliament in the circumstances.”
She said her actions since returning from overseas were not a pre-judgment on either man, who were entitled to the presumption of innocence.
”I am making no judgement on the merits of the allegations against these two men,” Ms Gillard said.
“Each of them are entitled to a presumption of innocence. I am not prejudging the issues they face.
Mr Thomson will formally announce his decision in an address to the media at 1pm AEST outside his electorate office.
Numbers in Parliament shift
With Mr Slipper currently stood aside, Mr Thomson’s move will reduce Labor’s numbers on the floor of the House of Representatives from 71 to 70, while the Coalition has 71.
Also, Labor has the casting vote of Ms Burke in her role as acting Speaker.
Mr Thomson’s move means there are now seven crossbenchers, but it is likely he will keep voting with the government.
Asked if she had Mr Thomson’s vote guaranteed on the floor of the lower house, Ms Gillard said: “I believe he will support Labor proposals in this parliament.”
She dismissed suggestions the government might have difficulty passing its budget on May 8.
It is understood Mr Thomson may rejoin Labor, but only if he is cleared of any wrongdoing. But it is unlikely he will be back in Labor ranks before the election, which is due next year.
A report into the Health Services Union by Fair Work Australia during Mr Thomson’s time as national secretary is due out any day now. So, too, is an internal audit into the HSU conducted by Ian Temby, QC.
Both will have findings potentially damaging for Mr Thomson and the government.
Mr Thomon’s move has been mooted inside government for some time and follows the suspension of the HSU from the ACTU – the nation’s peak union body – and the government’s decision last week to place the HSU into administration.
Independent MP Tony Windsor said Mr Thomson’s move was not entirely unexpected.
”I’m not surprised actually, given the circumstances within the Labor Party,” he told ABC Television.
But Mr Windsor dismissed fresh talk of a motion of no confidence against the government.”We’ve been hearing about them for 18 months. There hasn’t been one,” he said.
”The government hasn’t breached its agreement with me, so there’s no grounds for me to initiate a no-confidence motion.”
Treasurer Wayne Swan said it would be wise to let Mr Thomson speak first before commenting on the development.
He said Prime Minister Julia Gillard would make a statement on Mr Thomson later today. ”I’m focused on my budget and little else at the moment,” he told Network Ten.
– with AAP
This article first appeared in Hangzhou Night Net.