‘Member for Manila’ ordered to refund taxpayers
MEMBER for Dawson George Christensen charged taxpayers for 14 domestic flights linked to his personal overseas travel, but has only had to pay back one after an official audit.
The scathing report noted that Mr Christensen claimed "official or parliamentary business" for the flights, but at times "could not recall" what business was conducted and said that he often held meetings that were not documented.
He was required to pay back $327 for just one flight that breached the rules - charging taxpayers for a flight home from Canberra via Sydney despite no flights leaving to his homebase of Mackay from there.
It found that between 2014 and the end of 2018, the MP took 14 taxpayer-funded domestic flights to or from Brisbane or Sydney, linked to personal international flights.
But 12 of these came before parliamentary travel rules were tightened on January 1, 2018, and fell within the acceptable framework at the time.
Only one of the two remaining flights flagged by the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA) breached the travel rules.
Mr Christensen self-referred to IPEA on April 17 last year and an investigation began shortly after.
He offered to partially repay six of the flights, when questioned by the auditor in June, but was advised to wait until the investigation was complete.
IPEA found there was no definition of "official business" under the old parliamentary travel scheme allowing MPs broad scope to act "on their own judgement".
As well as the $327 he was required to pay, Mr Christensen voluntarily repaid a further $1843 for flights and COMCAR costs that were questioned.
In a statement, Mr Christensen said he believed he saved taxpayers $4000 by not flying back to Mackay, instead finishing his travel in a capital city from where he would catch an international flight.
"In nearly all cases, decisions to terminate trips at Brisbane have saved taxpayers the cost of a flight back to Mackay," he said.
"I have now paid for flights out of my own pocket which were not only in accordance with the rules but were a result of decisions to terminate flights early which saved taxpayers thousands of dollars.
The report noted that he still obtained a personal benefit from the travel in some instances, saving himself the cost of a flight from Mackay to a capital city for his personal flights.
He said he maintained that the one trip found to have been a breach of the rules was for the purpose of leaving Canberra after a Parliamentary sitting.
It was to take a self-funded trip to Rome and Israel for Easter, while he also met the Australian Ambassador to Israel.
"Mr Christensen stated that after completing official business, he had to pass through a capital city to return to Mackay, even if he did not return to his home base," the report stated.
"In these instances, Mr Christensen could not recall if any official business was conducted in the capital cities of his embarkation.
"Mr Christensen cited official business, however, he was only able to provide details and evidence in some instances."
In one defence, Mr Christensen said because he paid his own way back to Mackay after arriving back in Australia it represented "value for money" for taxpayers.
"Mr Christensen's contention does not recognise the personal benefit he obtained by not returning to his home base," it stated.
The trip he was required to pay back involved claiming a flight to Sydney on March 30, 2018, from where he caught a personal overseas flight.
"IPEA notes that since January 2017 it has not been possible to fly directly from Sydney to Mackay," the report stated.