Health Minister Sussan Ley will stand aside amid a string of scandals involving taxpayer-funded travel.
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8 Jan 2017 - 4:39 PM  UPDATED 9 Jan 2017 - 10:18 PM

Sussan Ley has agreed to stand aside as health minister amid a string of scandals surrounding her use of taxpayer-funded trips to the Gold Coast.

“After discussions with the Prime Minister I have agreed to stand aside while his departmental secretary thoroughly investigates these travel claims,” Ms Ley said in a press conference at her Albury home on Monday.

“I apologise for the distraction that this issue has caused.”

“It's not an admission that I've broken the rules and I'm very confident that the investigations will demonstrate that no rules were broken whatsoever.”

The Health Minister caved to mounting pressure to relieve herself of portfolio duties on Monday morning amid revelations she bought a $795,000 apartment during a taxpayer-funded trip to the Gold Coast in 2015.

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It has also been revealed in The Guardian she claimed travel costs to the Gold Coast for New Year's Eve celebrations in 2013 and 2014 with one of Australia's richest women, Sarina Russo, founder of recruitment agency Job Access and a Liberal Party donor.

Ms Ley said she flew to the Gold Coast at taxpayers' expense at the invitation of a "prominent Queensland businesswoman" for a business lunch on New Year's Eve in 2013 and then another New Year's Eve event in 2014.

Ms Ley has asked the Department of Finance investigate her ministerial travel to the Gold Coast and on Monday the prime minister announced he's also instructed the secretary of his department to investigate.

"I expect the highest standards from my ministers in all aspects of their conduct, and especially the expenditure of public money," Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement on Monday.

She will stand aside without ministerial pay until the investigation is complete.

“The team comes first and I’m very happy because I’m very confident of the outcome of these two independent investigations,” Susan Ley said.

In 2013, she claimed flights and taxis to attend a business lunch and the following year, attended the businesswoman's annual New Year's Eve event, she said.

Ms Ley insists she did not claim accommodation in either year, and when asked if her decision to pay back some of the costs for the Gold Coast trip was an admission that you have broken the rules, Ms Ley said it wasn't.

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"It wasn't an admission that I've broken the rules and I'm very confident that the investigations will demonstrate that no rules were broken whatsoever." she said.

"I also recognise, as you describe it, the pub test, and I recognise that for people who live in my electorate, who work hard, who understand about living on fixed incomes and have experienced a life I've experienced in the past, this has a look that I don't understand those issues and I don't recognise them and in fact the opposite is the case.

"So I am making available my records and I'm very confident that they will be within the rules. My offer to repay the funds was particularly because, in hindsight, the character of my visit to the Gold Coast on this particular occasion changed the moment I unexpectedly was the successful bidder at that auction."

When asked if she would be releasing her details and diaries of her trips to the general public and media, she said: "I will be providing all of that information to the two independent investigations that are happening."

"It is not always appropriate for ministers to release all of their diaries and I just want to touch on that. People imagine that we travel the country and we just go to official openings, cut ribbons and make media announcements," she said.

"In fact, for a health minister, the opposite is the case. I do spend a lot of time talking to patients. I do spend a lot of time one-on-one with people who have experiences in the health system, with people who are involved in the manufacture, the access and the supply of medicines, which is a particular interest of mine, as anyone who knows my record as health minister will tell you, and how we get patients to access those medicines is vital. So now, my diary is available to be inspected, as I said, by the Department of Finance and the Prime Minister's secretary.

"Will I allow the media access to go on a fishing expedition? Perhaps at the cost of confidentiality of some of the both confidential and commercial in-confidence meetings I have - no, I won't." 

Acting opposition leader Penny Wong said Mr Turnbull should have sacked Ms Ley from cabinet, but instead he went for the "weak" option.

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"What we see is the prime minister squibbing it," she told reporters in Adelaide.

"It's quite clear that the ministerial standards are an optional extra when it comes to Malcolm Turnbull."

She called on Ms Ley to release sufficient details to demonstrate that the trips taken were for public purposes.

Ms Wong labelled it ironic that her temporary replacement is Senator Sinodinos, who stepped aside from the frontbench during a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry into a company he chaired.

Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King also criticised Ley on Monday, calling on her to publicly explain her New Year's Eve jaunts.

"It would seem unusual to have official business on New Year's Eve," she told ABC Radio on Monday.

Cabinet minister Simon Birmingham said extensive travel was part of Ms Ley's responsibilities and does not think she has breached the ministerial code of conduct.

"I don't believe that is the case," he told ABC Radio.

"I think we are expected to be held to a high standard and accountability and transparency, and in this regard Sussan thinks it's appropriate to make some repayments and I appreciate and understand why."

'Error of judgement'

Minister Ley said on Sunday she had spoken with the Prime Minister about the "error of judgement". 

"He agrees that this claim does not meet the high standards he expects of Ministers," she said.

On Friday the minister's office said the "property purchase was not planned nor anticipated" but on Sunday Ms Ley said, although within the rules, the purchase changed the context of her trip.

The Health Minister said she had spent the last 48-hours examining her travel records and noticed another two questionable claims. 

"For accommodation on the Gold Coast in 2014 and 2015 where I should have stayed and claimed in Brisbane, as well as a single one-way flight from Coolangatta to Canberra in June 2015," Minister Ley said.

"I will also ask the Department of Finance to invoice me the costs of these claims, as well as the relevant penalty."

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- with AAP