05/12/2000 - 21:00

Selective probe queried

05/12/2000 - 21:00

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THAT ubiquitous West Aussie word, swan, is unlikely to remain a favourite of former Swan MHR, now Labor Leader Kim Beazley.

Selective probe queried

THAT ubiquitous West Aussie word, swan, is unlikely to remain a favourite of former Swan MHR, now Labor Leader Kim Beazley.

Last week his Queensland party pal frontbencher Wayne Swan got into a heap of strife over a paper bag full of high denomination dollar bills.

A few days later the current Swan MHR - also a Kim - Kim Wilkie told Parliament a staffer had lodged unauthorised travel claims that Mr. Wilkie intends repaying.

The national issue has led Mr Beazley to call for an audit of his party’s membership.

Meanwhile, another inquiry that cleared a Wilkie staffer of an alleged breach passed unnoticed.

These allegations surfaced on June 22 when Liberal Senator Alan Eggleston put a question to Special Minister of State Senator Ellison.

“Is the minister aware that Mr Damien Karmelich, a full-time electorate officer for the Member for Swan has been working on a regular basis from Labor House in Bunbury?” Senator Eggleston asked.

“Given that Labor House is located outside Mr Wilkie’s Federal electorate do Mr Karmelich’s activities contravene the guidelines for employment of electorate staff by members.

“Is the Minister aware that Mr Karmelich has been actively campaigning for the ALP as part of its State election efforts in the marginal seats of Bunbury and Mitchell?

“If Mr Karmelich has breached any guidelines: (a) what actions will the Minister take to correct the matter; and (b) will the minister undertake any efforts to recoup any taxpayers funds that may have been used during Mr Karmelich’s activities.”

Senator Ellison finally answered the questions late last week, but only after being pressed by Business News.

“In accordance with usual practice, I wrote to Mr Wilkie on 5 September requesting his comments on this matter”, he told the Senate.

“On 5 October 2000, Mr Wilkie wrote that he was satisfied that Mr Karmelich had not been working for the State Labor candidates in the seats of Bunbury and Mitchell and he had not contravened any guidelines or determinations on the use of staff by MPs.

“Mr Karmelich has assured Mr Wilkie that when he has been present at Labor House, he has been there either in a private capacity outside working hours or while on leave.

“Mr Wilkie is satisfied that Mr Karmelich has not broken any guidelines. As such, the Department of Finance and Administration proposed that no further action be taken in relation to this matter.”

But there’s more.

I was alerted to the questions after writing about WA Independent MLC Mark Nevill’s call for State candidates to be denied access to Federal MP offices for free printing, mailing, telephone or other services in State election campaigns.

Mr. Nevill claimed misuse of Federal electorate facilities was widespread.

The Wilkie Swan Affair began when someone in Bunbury tipped off the Liberals saying Mr Karmelich should be in Mr Wilkie’s Swan office in Perth, not Bunbury.

Senator Eggleston learned of it, so questioned Minister Ellison. Four and a half months later my contact told me of the questions, but when I called Minister Ellison’s office his press officer stunned me by claiming the questions had been withdrawn.

So I rang Senator Eggleston, who denied it.

Then I received a written reply from the Minister’s press officer which I was told was to be attributed to a spokesperson for the Special Minister of State.

“The Department of Finance and Administration has taken this matter up with Mr Wilkie as per usual practice where a breach entitlement is alleged to have occurred, and on the basis of his advice no further action will be taken.”

Her message continued: “Background not to be attributed - As I advised you last week the question on notice was withdrawn by Senator Eggleston.”

In a state of utter confusion, I went back to the Minister’s office. I was directed to another ministerial staffer who replied: “I have investigated this matter. The Special Minister of State was informed that the question had been withdrawn.

“Upon further investigation yesterday I ascertained that the question had not been withdrawn.

“Given this information the Minister tabled the answer to Senator Eggleston’s question.”

This reply and the strange sequence of events that eventually saw it publicly answered raises a host of questions.

Here are just five:

l Why is Mr Swan facing intensive investigation when the allegations against Mr Wilkie only drew a letter of inquiry?

l Why did it take the Minister more than two months to send off the letter?

l Were any other inquiries made - such as checks of claims for reimbursement of expenses - to corroborate the original allegation?

l Who told the Minister the question was withdrawn, and why? and

l Did State ALP leader Geoff Gallop know a Federal Labor MP staffer was working for two of his state candidates in Bunbury?

Maybe, as Mr Nevill recommends, there should be a political ombudsman who polices misuse of electoral facilities by parties and candidates.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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