Australian speaker steps aside over sex claims

Australian parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper officially stood aside Tuesday amid sex harassment and travel fraud claims, while proclaiming his innocence and slamming a "trial by media".

Slipper, who is 62 and married, has been accused of harassing former aide James Ashby, 33, with explicit text messages, unwanted advances and inappropriate comments between January and March this year.

He is also accused, by Ashby, of fraudulently misusing taxpayer-funded taxi services.

After police said last week they were investigating the fraud allegations, Slipper declared he would temporarily vacate his post. Parliament's return from a six-week recess on Tuesday was his first opportunity to do so formally.

His decision was a blow to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who engineered his promotion to speaker last year after he defected from the Liberals, a move that lost the opposition one vote and shored up her wafer-thin hold on power.

Slipper vowed to return to the speakership.

"There is much more to be done, and I look forward to completing what I have begun," he said.

"I believe I am entitled, like any other person, to have the presumption of innocence. I am also entitled to have these matters dealt with by proper process.

"It is unfortunate that trial by media seems to have become the order of the day in this country."

Deputy speaker Anna Burke, from Gillard's ruling Labor party, takes the chair while police investigate the allegations.

The embattled prime minister, whose government was to announce its budget Tuesday, has also had to deal with a Labor lawmaker embroiled in a scandal over payment for prostitutes.

Craig Thomson, whose vote is key to Gillard, is alleged to have used a former employer's credit card to pay for prostitutes and lavish meals and make cash withdrawals before he became an MP.

Labor asked him to quit the party, and he has suspended his party membership, although he has said he will continue to support the government.

With Thomson's move to the crossbenches, Labor now holds just 71 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives while the conservative opposition has 72, but Gillard has the support of two independents and a Greens MP.

In addition to Thomson and Slipper, there are two other non-aligned members of parliament.

Opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne told parliament the government's association with Slipper and Thomson had given a public face to "the erosion of Labor's moral core".

"The standing of the parliament and politicians has never been lower in the eyes of the Australian public," he said.

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