“Taxpayers have paid at least $30,860 for private Chinese language lessons for former immigration minister Senator Amanda Vanstone,” Fairfax papers reported on Sunday. “The senator’s spending is causing deep concern in the Immigration Department and… for her ministerial successor, Kevin Andrews.”

Crikey understands that Vanstone’s Chinese takeaway has bought on a bad case of heartburn. She must’ve gone for the all you can eat banquet option.

On Sunday, AAP quoted the sacked cabinet member as saying “It is mischief making in the extreme to suggest I used taxpayer funds to learn another language. On a case-by-case basis for individual short speeches in Mandarin as Minister I have had assistance with preparation and drafting and very limited delivery coaching. It would be absolutely impossible to learn Mandarin without regular lessons and, of course, constant practice.”

On Monday, however, Vanstone admitted taxpayers paid about $54,000 for her Mandarin lessons and speech coaching.

“If money had been spent for somebody to come in and just give me tutoring in a language so that I could order a gin and tonic, or go to a restaurant and order a meal – that would be fair enough to complain,” she told Nine’s probing current affairs show The Catch Up. “But that’s not what it is, it’s helping with speech preparation and things.”

Those “things” are reportedly causing concern at senior levels in the Government and bureaucracy. Vanstone’s fondness for Chinese could prove awkward for a Government already suffering a surfeit of bad news.

Fairfax reported the tuition costs do not appear to fall under any ministerial or departmental guidelines and that there are no records of a competitive tender process being sought for the services.

Vanstone confirmed to Crikey today that “intermittent” Mandarin assistance came from a family member of a staffer, Shane Chen. Chen was employed after the Mandarin assistance began. Since Vanstone’s sacking, Chen has gone on to work in a new role in her old Department, Immigration and Citizenship.

Vanstone is noted for her enthusiasms – and the enthusiasm with which she pursues enthusiasms. At one stage it was Italian lessons.

The Senator has employed another staffer of Chinese background on what she described as “limited term contracts” as an electorate officer in Adelaide.

Vanstone told Crikey that the staffer was not employed to help with her Mandarin. “I wish I had the time,” she said. She confirmed that when employed, he was not an Australian citizen, but a permanent resident.

Government sources say there has been concern at just what Vanstone may do on the backbench.

Vanstone is currently on leave from the Senate for personal reasons. There is much speculation, however, that she will take a diplomatic role – possibly in Rome or, given her new interests, as leader of the Australian delegation to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

Government sources fear a game of bluff is going on, that there is an implicit threat that Vanstone may become outspoken if a posting does not appear.

Crikey understands that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would rather go through the AWB all over again that have anything to do with the former minister.

Vanstone’s Chinese banquet seems to have ended with plenty of sweet and sour remaining.

Sweet for the Senator, sour for the Government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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