In an extraordinary 2014 letter sent from Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald to Department of Finance Secretary Jane Halton, the Senator slammed the Department of Finance for not allowing him to pay his wife for working in his office.

In 2014, then-prime minister Tony Abbott introduced rules that would prevent MPs and senators from hiring spouses and family members in their parliamentary or electorate offices, but the move would not mean that those MPs and senators who currently employed family members, such as Ian Macdonald’s wife, Lesley, would have to fire the staffers.

This change came after it was alleged former Liberal MP Alex Somlyay had billed taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to pay his wife for working in his office.

A letter released under freedom of information to the transparency website Right to Know indicates that the Department of Finance, nevertheless, sought to prevent Macdonald from paying his wife to work in his office. Macdonald’s response challenges the department’s policy on the grounds that it is discriminatory to not allow his wife to work for him.

“It seems to me that the inability of my wife to receive payment is discrimination in the workplace … I have reported this to the Fair Work Ombudsman,” Macdonald said in the October 2014 letter.

Macdonald said he was unaware of what legislation existed that would prevent him from paying his wife for work in his office. He asked then-employment minister Eric Abetz and then-special minister of state Michael Ronaldson, for what legislative backing or legal advice they had to back up this policy, but neither had responded.

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“What I find intolerable is that because my wife happens to be married to me, she is unable to be paid for the work she continues to do for me … if rather than my wife, I was employing a mistress, that would be in order.”

He said his wife worked five to six days per week when he was in Canberra, but only got paid for two.

“[Macdonald’s wife] is my employee of longest standing with the greatest corporate knowledge and is my most trusted and valuable employee.”

A spokesperson for Macdonald told Crikey that 15 months later, the matter of his wife’s employment in his office remained unresolved.

Crikey has sought comment from the Department of Finance.

Peter Fray

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