Australian health minister who bought luxury apartment during taxpayer-funded trip stands down

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 3:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 10:49pm

Australia’s health minister temporarily stepped down Monday while her travel expense claims are investigated.

The scandal surrounding Minister Sussan Ley’s expense claims could trigger the first reshuffle of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet since his government was re-elected six months ago.

Ley has been under scrutiny since last week over allegations that she made taxpayers pay for personal travel in recent years, including to the tourist city of Gold Coast where she bought a luxury apartment in 2015.

Turnbull said Ley had agreed to stand aside without ministerial pay while the prime minister’s department investigated whether her expense claims met guidelines.

“I expect the highest standards from my ministers in all aspects of their conduct and especially the expenditure of public money,” Turnbull said in a statement.

Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos will temporarily fulfil Ley’s portfolio responsibilities during the investigation.

Ley has admitted to making an error of judgement in claiming travel to the Gold Coast to buy the apartment at an auction and offered to repay some costs incurred in travel to the Gold Coast.

While she said she never broke any rules, she said some claims failed what is known in Australian politics as the pub test: meaning a conversation among ordinary Australians in a bar would conclude that the claims were not justified.

“I am making available my records and I’m very confident that they will be within the rules,” Ley told reporters.

Speculation that Turnbull could reshuffle his Cabinet soon heightened last month when Defence Minister Marise Payne was ill in hospital.

The focus on Ley’s travel expenses its politically difficult for the government as it attempts to reign in the national deficit. The government has been recently criticised over attempts to claw back overpayments to welfare recipients and to cut pensions to the elderly.

An opinion poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday found that Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten were the least popular competitors vying for the country’s leadership in more than 20 years.