Australia’s parliamentary speaker has temporarily stepped down from his post amid allegations of sexual harassment and fraud.
Peter Slipper, speaker of the House of Representatives, announced on Sunday that he would be temporarily replaced by his deputy Anna Burke, an Australian Labor Party politician, while police investigated allegations that he misused taxi-payment vouchers.
James Ashby, an openly gay 33-year-old former staff member, made the fraud allegations and was also suing Slipper in the Federal Court claiming sexual harassment.
Slipper denies all the allegations.
According to parliamentary regulations, the move effectively costs the governing Australian Labor Party its single-seat majority.
The sexual-harassment case is a civil matter, while the taxi-voucher allegations are criminal.
Police have confirmed they are evaluating the criminal allegation.
“Any allegation of criminal behavior is grave and should be dealt with in a manner that shows appropriate regard to the integrity of our democratic institutions and to precedent,” Slipper said in a statement on Sunday.
“As such, I believe it is appropriate for me to stand aside as speaker while this criminal allegation is resolved.
“The allegation is incorrect, and once it is clear they are untrue, I shall return to the speakership. I would appreciate the relevant bodies dealing with the matter expeditiously.”
Slipper, 62, who is married with two adult children from a previous relationship, defected from the opposition in November last year to take the speaker’s job in a move that effectively gave Julia Gillard’s minority government an additional vote in the chamber.
While the centre-left government will face greater difficulty in passing contentious legislation through the House of Representatives, the conservative opposition is still short of the 76 votes it needs in the 150-seat chamber to bring down the government.
If Slipper had not stood aside, the opposition had threatened to move a motion calling for parliament to fire him when it next sits on May 8.
Gillard, who has struggled to maintain her minority government since elections in 2010, welcomed the move.
“It is appropriate that Mr Slipper has stood aside as speaker whilst alleged criminal conduct is investigated,” she said in a statement.
An independent politician has since withdrawn his support for Labor, leaving Gillard with command of exactly half the chamber.
Since a speaker can only vote to break a draw, Burke will effectively be barred from most votes. The rules state that Slipper cannot vote at all while he stands aside.
But the absence of Slipper’s vote creates the possibility of a 74-vote tie, in which the speaker’s casting vote would come into play for the government.