PM moves to kill off secret Nats scandal

THE Deputy Prime Minister's office planned to allow MPs to bill taxpayers for flights and accommodation for a lavish Nationals centenary celebration, an explosive leaked text message has revealed.

The Courier-Mail can reveal Michael McCormack's top adviser admitted a party-room meeting had been deliberately scheduled to coincide with the Nationals' 100th anniversary dinner, to be held at five-star Melbourne hotel on March 13.

A jaw-dropping text message between Mr McCormack's chief-of-staff Damian Callachor and others in Nationals offices snares the Deputy Prime Minister in a damaging political scandal, which was brought to the attention of Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday.

Mr Morrison yesterday urged Mr McCormack's office to get urgent advice from the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority.

It is understood Mr Morrison wants it killed off, and believes it would be inappropriate for taxpayer funds to be used so Nationals can attend the event.

Other Liberals believe it does not pass the pub test, but there is no suggestion Mr Callachor engaged in any wrongdoing.

The issue is behind some of the tensions that have been brewing within the Nationals since the text message was sent in December.

When Mr Callachor was asked in December by a Nationals office why a party room meeting was needed in Melbourne, given one would have been held days earlier in Parliament House in Canberra, he responded with: "The party room (meeting) is designed to ensure all members and senators have appropriate travel entitlements."

 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses Question Time yesterday as his deputy and Nationals leader Michael McCormack looks on. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP
Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses Question Time yesterday as his deputy and Nationals leader Michael McCormack looks on. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP

 

The response floored some Nationals, and is why Member for Wide Bay Llew O'Brien challenged Damien Drum for deputy speaker this week, The Courier-Mail understands.

As whip, Mr Drum has responsibility for organising party room meetings.

All Nationals already have the meeting booked in their diaries.

Mr Drum sent an email to colleagues yesterday saying IPEA accepted that claiming arrangements for travel and accommodation associated with the event was within the rules for MPs and Senators.

However some Nationals MPs started making private arrangements to fly to Melbourne after being made aware of the text message, given they believe it would be wrong to bill taxpayers and that it is just weeks after deputy leader Bridget McKenzie stepped down over the sports grants scandal.

Backbenchers earn over $200,000 and frontbenchers at least $350,000.

In a statement to The Courier-Mail last night, a spokeswoman for Mr McCormack hinted that the party room meeting in Melbourne may now be axed.

"At the time the Deputy Prime Minister's chief-of-staff provided the advice to the MP's office, the intention was to hold a party-room meeting, but this was subject to IPEA advice and confirmation closer to the time,'' she said.

"The location of this meeting is a matter for the National Party, and a decision will be made at the regular party room meeting in Canberra on February 24.

 

Deputy Speaker Llew O’Brien sits in the speaker’s chair before Question Time yesterday. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images
Deputy Speaker Llew O’Brien sits in the speaker’s chair before Question Time yesterday. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

 

"IPEA has advised in line with the Parliamentary Business Resources Act … parliamentarians can claim for travel expenses (including allowances) that are incurred for the dominant purpose of conducting parliamentary business and represent value for money.

"IPEA advises the event falls under section a) of the definition of Party Political duties as per Schedule 3 of the Parliamentary Business Resources (Parliamentary Business) Determination 2017.

"IPEA advises travel to this event would, in broad terms, meet the … definition.

"But as always, this is a matter for MPs and Senators to determine."

Parliamentarians must ensure any expenditure for parliamentary business is consistent with a number of legislated principles.

A principles-based framework requires that parliamentarians use public resources for the dominant purpose of parliamentary business, including activities that relate directly to the parliamentarian's role; that support or serve their constituents; are connected with a political party and their membership of the parliament, or relates to the parliamentarian's role as an officeholder or minister.

The Nationals have for months been trumpeting its Centenary celebrations.

On March 13, MPs and guests will attend a Nationals Historical Re-Enactment Ceremony at the Parliament of Victoria, before a Centenary Gala Dinner at Park Hyatt, Melbourne.

Tickets for both events will cost National Party members $175, while corporate and general tickets go for $550.


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