Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced more questions over the $500,000 taxpayer-funded payout to a former Liberal staffer and lover of Alan Tudge – with another minister’s name linked to the saga for the first time.
Campaigning again in the marginal Tasmanian of Bass on Thursday, Mr Morrison stood by his claim that the payout did not involve allegations against Mr Tudge, who has stood aside as Education Minister.
Asked specifically if the claim also named Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, he said he “hadn’t been briefed” on that.
“That was my last advice. If there was any matter there that went to the conduct of any minister, any minister at all, that related to the ministry or standards, then I would be advised of that,” he said.
“I have been advised of no such matters that would require my attention in relation to the ministerial standards.”
Mr Tudge stood aside in December after being accused of emotional and physical abuse by staffer Rachelle Miller, with whom he was having a consensual affair.
Mr Tudge strenuously denies the allegations. A subsequent investigation found there was insufficient evidence he had breached ministerial standards.
Ms Miller also worked for Senator Cash, although it is the first time she has been named in relation to the dispute. Senator Cash has also denied any claims of bullying.
Ms Miller will receive a $500,000 taxpayer-funded settlement, which was raised during the Wednesday night’s final leaders’ debate.
For the first time, Mr Morrison confirmed the payout was still being negotiated. He noted it “has not even been settled”.
“That’s because these are matters to go to very private interactions between people and they are handled sensitively,” he said.
At the same time, Mr Morrison also confirmed Mr Tudge would return as Education Minister if the Coalition won the May 21 election.
In Launceston on Thursday, Mr Morrison visited the Head To Health facility to announce more than $55 million for mental health and suicide prevention support and services in the state over the next five years.
Launceston is in the northern Tasmanian seat of Bass, held by Liberal MP Bridget Archer with a margin of just 0.4 per cent.
Ms Archer became tearful when describing how much the funding meant to her and shared touching details of her own experiences.
She said improving mental health services was one of the reasons she entered politics.
“I have suffered from poor mental health a lot of my life,” she said.
“I’ve unfortunate personal experience with suicide, of losing my stepsister to suicide, and I’ve seen the impact suicide has had on small communities like mine across Tasmania.
“If we can stop one person from taking their life, then these services will be worth it.”
The Morrison government will spend $45.6 million, with the Tasmanian government providing $9.4 million in-kind.
The bulk of the funding will go to three new Head To Health satellite clinics in Burnie, Devonport and Outer Hobart, with ongoing funding for the state’s first Head to Health centre in Launceston.
Elsewhere, Mr Morrison again hit out at the opposition’s minimum wage rise push, as Anthony Albanese flagged a Labor government would take its time to draft a submission to the industrial umpire.
Mr Albanese said he would support a 5.1 per cent wage increase in line with inflation at a 20-year high, but indicated the mechanism to seek the rise would be determined in coming weeks.
Mr Morrison branded Mr Albanese’s statement as “reckless”.
“We all want to see wages increase but I don’t want to see reckless behaviour in how the process should work and this is where Mr Albanese has failed,” he said.
“He knows he got that wrong. He knows he acted recklessly, and he’s been trying to cover his tracks ever since.”
Mr Morrison repeatedly refused to put a figure on an appropriate wage rise, but warned an increase and its flow-on effect on other wages could trigger higher inflation.
“Any potential support you might have got in wages would be clawed back in even higher interest rates and even higher inflation,” he said.
“That’s not how you manage an economy.”
Mr Albanese hit back, saying he had been consistent that he supported a real wage increase and the government couldn’t go over the top of the commission.
“There is a cost of living [crisis] and everything is going up except for wages. The idea that we would support a real wage cut for people on the minimum wage is an extraordinary claim,” he said in Gladstone.
“What I have said consistently … is if the Fair Work Commission, that operates independently of government, makes a decision to not cut real wages and keep up with the cost of living, that’s something that I would welcome.”
Mr Albanese accused the government of constantly spruiking a strong economy, but acting as if “the sky is falling in” when Labor supported a $1 an hour increase to the minimum wage.
He said a Labor government would have until June 7 to draft a comprehensive submission to the industrial umpire.
Labor’s campaign spokesman Jason Clare accused Mr Morrison of being out of touch with the reality of living costs.
“I say to Scott Morrison, you’ve got a screw loose if you don’t think people are struggling to pay the bills at the moment,” he said.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions wants the Fair Work Commission to increase the minimum hourly rate by 5.5 per cent to $21.35 while business proposes a three per cent lift.
But the head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the cost of doing business had also increased, citing Australian Bureau of Statistics data.
“We’ve seen in the last three months … that three out of five businesses have been facing a surge in costs,” Andrew McKellar told the ABC.
“Businesses are facing a very tough time at the moment.”
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