Andrew Laming says watchdog has done ‘nothing’ since he refused to repay expenses it found he wrongly claimed
Outgoing Liberal National party politician Andrew Laming says the expenses watchdog has done “nothing” since he publicly refused to pay back more than $8,000 in travel expenses he was found by it to have wrongly claimed.
The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (Ipea) audited a single month of Laming’s travel in 2020 after a Guardian Australia series on MPs’ expense claims.
It found he had wrongly claimed 21 expenses worth $8,288.04 relating to his or his family’s travel between Hobart, Melbourne and Brisbane in June 2019. Ipea issued an invoice for Laming to pay back $10,360, which covers the travel expenses and an extra 25% loading, to the commonwealth.
But Laming outright refused to pay. He described Ipea’s investigation as a “witch-hunt” that was “baseless and subjective”, saying he rejected “every syllable” of its report.
Ipea typically gives MPs 30 days before escalating its payment recovery. Those 30 days have elapsed, but Laming said he has not been contacted by anyone, including debt collectors, chasing him for the payment.
“Nothing heard and nothing expected,” he said.
“Having zero confidence in the outcome, I intend to expose by appeal both the process and conclusions as utterly flawed.”
Ipea told the Guardian that questions about the status of payments were best directed to the MP in question.
But its chief executive, Annwyn Godwin, told Senate estimates last month that the invoice was still with Laming.
“There is an invoice that is currently with Mr Laming,” Godwin said. “Mr Laming may choose to pay within those 30 days; he may not choose to pay within those 30 days.”
“We then have a policy which says we escalate these arrangements at 30, 60 and 90 days. Ultimately, we have the option of pursuing the debt further through our debt collection arrangements.”
Ipea’s audit of Laming’s travel focussed mainly on two trips: one from Brisbane to Melbourne, where Laming attended an Australian horticulture industry conference, and the other from Brisbane to Hobart, where Laming attended a meeting of ophthalmologists.
The Hobart trip was taken with his partner and two children, beginning 21 June 2019, and Laming said the main purpose was to attend the combined meeting of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) and the Australia and New Zealand Society of Ophthalmic Plastic Surgeons (ANZSOPS).
He claimed thousands of dollars worth of flights, travel allowance, hire car costs and Cabcharges.
But the Ipea investigation said organisers were “unaware of his intention to attend until shortly before the conference commenced”. Laming, the investigation said, had no formal invitation and only spoke with organisers at the last minute, prompting them to find a slot for him to speak.
“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,” the organisers told Ipea.
Laming told the Guardian he was not invited at the last minute. He said he “was invited, confirmed and registered [on] June 12”.
The second trip examined by Ipea was a trip to Melbourne on 26 June for Hort Connections, the flagship annual conference for the horticulture industry. Laming claimed about $4,000 in flights, Cabcharges and travel allowance.
Laming’s wife also attended the conference in her own right, for the entirety of the conference, and the MP billed taxpayers for her travel home to Brisbane.
Laming said his presence at the conference was necessary so he could develop a proposal for a “food hub” in Birkdale, Brisbane, in his electorate.
But Ipea’s investigation found he had not arrived until 9.49pm on the last day of the conference. By Laming’s own evidence, the authority said, he was only at the event for “the final hour of the dinner that concluded the conference”.
He told the watchdog he had attended after an award ceremony at the invitation of a sponsor.
Ipea was damning of Laming’s 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,” it said. “Further, in a number of instances where Ipea posed specific questions to Mr Laming he obfuscated, provided inconsistent answers or ignored the question altogether.”
But Laming said the findings of the report were false and that the watchdog had “cherry-picked” evidence against him. He said the investigation had confirmed he travelled to address a national conference in Hobart, attend an industry gala dinner in Melbourne and meet with independent educators.
“Each leg, every event and my participation in these events were in my view parliamentary, dominant in purpose and backed by independent third-party corroboration,” he said.
“With the facts clearly before them, the IPEA conclusions are bizarre and will not survive independent scrutiny.”