There are some investigations where police are happy to give an ongoing commentary that shows how clever and thorough they are but not this time.

Inquiries about the case the Queensland media has dubbed Printgate bring from the Australian Federal Police nothing more than the deadpan comment that “this is an ongoing investigation”.

Commissioner Mick Keelty, a man who will travel to Greece to get his face on television, is nowhere to be seen as the speculation grows about who spent whose money on what in the last Queensland state election.

The police reticence can be forgiven on this occasion because the allegations being investigated are of a very political nature. The Federal Police are investigating whether three Federal Liberal backbenchers used their taxpayer-funded printing allowances to prop up last year’s state election campaign of their party.

What’s harder to understand is why three months have passed without a decision on whether Ross Vasta, MP for Bonner, Andrew Laming, MP for Bowman, and Gary Hardgrave, a former minister who is the MP for Moreton, have a case to answer.

What is known is that Mr Vasta has repaid the Federal Finance Department expenses wrongly claimed as a result of “administrative errors.”

Mr Vasta said in a statement that an audit he conducted found the mistake:

… in accordance with standard parliamentary practices, I informed the Department of Finance and Administration immediately and rectified the error. There was no loss to the commonwealth and the Department of Finance and Administration was completely satisfied. From time to time members from both sides of parliament find errors and reimburse. The amount was $23,757.80.

Whether this repayment relates to the allegations being investigated by the AFP that the MPs used their taxpayer-funded printing allowances to pay for Liberal Party printing of state election material was not stated.

Prime Minister John Howard has so far been supportive of his Queensland colleagues but he must now be getting restless about the impact the police investigation will have on his re-election prospects. The rumours and speculation about what actually went on can be far more damaging than the truth even if the truth does eventually result in charges being laid.

That Labor is well aware of the benefit it is gaining from the climate of innuendo is shown by the relative lack of public comment from the party since the allegations were first raised. The Opposition has been more than happy to allow the AFP to meander along and keep the rumour mill going.

But as The Courier Mail said in a recent editorial, the three Liberal MPs:

… have so far endured 14 weeks of public speculation and humiliation, with little apparent progress in the investigation. There is no indication of formal charges being laid any time soon. This is simply too long a wait, and the delay is damaging to all parties involved. If there is no evidence of wrongdoing, or insufficient evidence for successful prosecution, then justice can only be served by promptly clearing the MPs. The toll on their families must be devastating. Conversely, if a reasonable case can be mounted, the AFP is obliged to proceed expeditiously. The AFP does itself no favours with its tardiness.

An intriguing sidelight in The Courier Mail editorial was a reference to the AFP unit investigating Printgate being headed by a female superintendent who is “a paid-up member of the ALP”.

While the paper questions whether this is appropriate, Commissioner Keelty could believe that it is a form of insurance if the decision is finally made not to launch a prosecution. It certainly makes it hard for Labor to argue that the inquiry was politically biased to favour the government.

This morning Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd commented that:

This starts to stink to high heaven when it comes to what Mr Vasta has been up to. How can you simply, suddenly, quietly, refund $24,000, whatever the amount is, and then pretend that somehow it’s all been perfectly normal and above board? There are big questions to be answered here about how Mr Vasta has handled this, how Mr Howard has handled this, and how the relevant government ministers have handled this, because as we know there is a continuing investigation, by the Australian Federal Police, into the Queensland division of the Liberal Party.

These will certainly not be his last comments. Printgate will use up a lot more ink before it ends.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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