Liberal MP and Federal Representative for the Division of Bowman, Andrew Laming, has refused to pay back taxpayer funds used for travel in June of 2019 and labelled the audit into his expenses as a "witch hunt".
The parliamentary expenses watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA), has requested Mr. Laming to pay back $10,360 after releasing a report revealing that he had wrongly claimed 30 separate expenses. These expenses totalled $8288.04 plus a 25% loading fee. The expenses included claims for his wife and two children who together travelled with Mr. Laming in June of 2019 between Brisbane, Canberra, Hobart, and Melbourne.
The IPEA began investigating Mr. Laming's expenses following a series of articles by The Guardian Australia on travel expenses claimed by MP's in 2020. The IPEA invited Mr. Laming to review and respond to a drafted version of the audit before its publication but he did not provide any further evidence. The IPEA report also noted that Mr. Laming at times “obfuscated, provided inconsistent answers or ignored [questions]” during the course of its investigation. Mr. Laming was invited to review and reply to a drafted version of the audit before its publication but did not provide any further evidence. The reason for this, according to Mr. Laming, is that exactly one year's worth of emails, beginning at midnight on January 6th 2019, had been lost:
“The central record of all of our email activity from my account – my work account – has been lost from the period of January 2019 to January 2020, exactly one year, and no one knows why that’s gone, it’s almost impossible to manually do.”
On the question of if he was going to pay the money back, Mr. Laming responded to the Brisbane Times with “No, of course not. The entire trip was parliamentary.”
The IPEA audit reviewed two instances of travel in particular for which Mr. Laming claimed expenses for. This first trip, Mr. Laming claimed, beginning on the 21st June 2019 and spanning three days, was required so that he could attend the combined meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Ophthalmic Plastic Surgeons (ANZSOPS) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO). Mr. Laming's partner and two children accompanied him on the trip, totalling thousands of dollars in travel allowance for Cabcharges and a hire car which travelled nearly 1000km across Tasmania during its lease.
The IPEA disagreed with Mr. Laming's claim that the speech entailed that the trip was primarily for parliamentary business.
“While this [speech] may satisfy the definition of parliamentary business, it fails the dominant purpose test when examined within the context of Mr. Laming’s activities, and use of business resources, over a three-day period."
Furthermore, the IPEA investigation learned that Mr. Laming was not provided with a formal invitation to the event and that its organisers were originally "unaware of his intention to attend until shortly before the conference commenced." The organisers informed the IPEA that Mr. Laming spoke with them only at "the last minute":
“We came to know about Mr Laming’s plan to attend the conference quite close to the actual meeting and we made a slot for him to speak on Sunday the 23rd of June.”
Mr. Laming told The Guardian that he was both invited, confirmed and registered for the event on June 12th 2019, more than a week before the event took place, claiming that this description of his invitation as being "last minute" was inaccurate. The IPEA did not support this notion as Mr. Laming was only able to provide a copy of his registration of attendance of the event, not as a guest speaker.
The second trip involved Mr. Laming travelling from Brisbane to Melbourne for the Hort Connections annual conference, a key event for the Australian horticulture industry. Mr. Laming claimed over $4000 for this travel period including flights, travel allowance and Cabcharges. Mr. Laming's partner also attended the conference and her return to Brisbane was also claimed as an expense. The IPEA found that this claim was not in good faith:
“IPEA is of the view that it was more probable Mr. Laming’s travel was to facilitate his spouse’s return from the conference at Commonwealth expense and his claiming of expenses was not consistent with his obligation to act in good faith."
Furthermore, the IPEA investigation found that Mr. Laming had not arrived at the event until 9:49pm on the last day of the three-day-conference and only attended "the final hour of the dinner that concluded the conference."
Mr. Laming claimed that the IPEA had “cherry-picked” evidence as part of the investigation to form an adverse finding. Mr. Laming described the IPEA investigation as a "baseless and subjective witch-hunt" and disputed "every syllable" of the IPEA's findings:
“IPEA’s finding that the travel was not ‘parliamentary enough’ is false. For this reason I categorically reject the report’s conclusions and view the process as a ‘witch-hunt’. I won’t be repaying legitimate parliamentary travel, and no MP ever should.”
The IPEA report was critical of Mr. Laming’s overall approach to the investigation:
“In general, and specifically in relation to the audit report, Mr. Laming’s responses have been deficient in content and detail. Further, in a number of instances where IPEA posed specific questions to Mr. Laming he obfuscated, provided inconsistent answers or ignored the question altogether.”