An independent MP has sided with the opposition’s attempt to force embattled Labor MP Craig Thomson to front parliament and defend allegations he misused a credit card issued to him when he was a union leader.
But the Labor government dodged the bullet when insufficient crossbenchers followed Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie – who helped Julia Gillard get to power last year – in voting with the opposition, and the motion failed.
NSW police are examining whether to investigate Mr Thomson, the member for Dobell, over his alleged misuse of a Health Services Union credit card to pay for prostitutes in 2005 and 2007.
Fair Work Australia also is investigating the union’s finances under Mr Thomson’s leadership.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard says Mr Thomson, who on Tuesday night stood aside as chairman of the lower house economics committee but denies any wrongdoing, is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
But the opposition on Wednesday morning made a second attempt to force Mr Thomson to make a formal statement to parliament.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says the issue is preventing the government from addressing more serious problems.
“It is very important the matter be resolved and that this boil for the government be lanced,” he told ABC Radio.
“While the government is completely distracted by the Craig Thomson matter it’s not properly able to attend to the pressing problems the country faces.”
The opposition denied any “pairs” in parliament, including Arts Minister Simon Crean, who was scheduled to attend a state memorial service for artist Margaret Olley in Sydney, and Ms Gillard who was to welcome the president of the Republic of Seychelles.
Mr Crean accused Mr Abbott of “taking the wrecking ball to parliament”.
Mr Abbott said it was a matter of “political integrity”.
Speaking during a rowdy parliamentary session, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said the coalition in the past had taken the same approach as Labor and allowed investigations into MPs to take their course without hindrance.
“It is a very dangerous slippery slope when the parliament sets itself up for this sort of engagement and this sort of grubby behaviour such as we are seeing here,” Mr Albanese said.
Labor senator Doug Cameron expressed qualified confidence in Mr Thomson, when questioned by reporters on Wednesday morning.
“It’s not a matter for me.
“He is one of my colleagues but he’s not been a close colleague and if you look at the past Craig and I have a bit of history, so I’ll just leave it at that.”
Senator Cameron added later: “If the prime minister has confidence in Craig Thomson, I have confidence in Craig Thomson.”
Mr Pyne told reporters in Canberra after the vote that the coalition knew “there was no possibility of an absolute majority”, because a number of pairs were already in place.
But he said it was a “moral victory” for the opposition.
“This issue goes to the very integrity of the government,” Mr Pyne said.
Mr Pyne said only “exceptional circumstances” should prevent members from turning up to a vote in parliament.
“While Margaret Olley is a very significant Australian … it is not appropriate for a funeral to take precedence over votes in the parliament about the integrity of the government,” Mr Pyne said.
Asked whether Liberal senator Mary Jo Fisher, who is facing court charges of theft and assault, should follow Mr Thomson’s lead and resign as chairperson of the parliamentary committee she heads, Mr Pyne said: “There is absolutely no comparison whatsoever.”
“I don’t think the man on the Clapham bus thinks a $93 supermarket allegation ranks alongside the several hundred thousand dollars that are now at play in the issue of the member for Dobell,” Mr Pyne said.
Leader of the House Anthony Albanese told reporters the opposition had ditched “common decency” and breached a written agreement by not allowing pairs to allow MPs to attend the funeral.
“This was simply an act of petulance,” Mr Albanese said.
Asked whether Senator Fisher should stand aside from her committee role, Mr Albanese said: “That’s a matter for her but it’s a matter for the opposition to explain the contradictions in its position.”
Mr Albanese said he was not aware of any pressure, from party figures or ministers, being put on Mr Thomson to stand aside from the committee chairmanship.