Former Labor MP Michael Danby charged taxpayers thousands of dollars to pay one of his staffers consultancy fees to provide an after-hours “communications service” that included writing an anti-Greens opinion piece.
Invoice documents from Danby’s office, released through freedom of information law, show he contracted a firm named Developer Approvals Australia for a range of communications consultancy work between October 2018 and February 2019.
The work included advice on targeted social media campaigns for the electorate, coordinating work to be done by a video production company for Danby, briefing a graphic designer on ads to be taken out in the local press, and other duties typically handled by electorate staff.
Included in the invoices published by the department are “development of communications – graphics and copy for mass mailout of the electorate (anti-Green)” and the “writing of anti-Green op-ed for Australian Financial Review”. The individual costs of the items were redacted.
According to an Asic search, James Bingham is the sole director of Developer Approvals Australia. Bingham was a staffer for Danby and in his valedictory speech, Danby paid tribute to Bingham for returning to Australia from Spain to help Danby out with the last eight months of his political career.
Danby confirmed to Guardian Australia that the invoice related to payments to one of his staffers. But he said the communications work had been done outside of normal work hours.
Danby also said he had received approval from the relevant department for the use of the consultant.
“Unlike the Green Party who have a record of exploiting unpaid interns, I believe people should be paid for the work they do,” Danby told Guardian Australia.
“The staffer concerned provided a communications service outside normal work hours,” he said.
“Many MPs use consultants and must get approval from the dept (as I did) for their projects.”
The total cost of the work over the period was $22,355.33. Greens senator, Mehreen Faruqi, criticised Danby for the arrangement and called on him to explain why he was outsourcing the writing of his opinion pieces to a consultancy owned by his former staffer.
“As well as the issue of taxpayer funds being used for a partisan hit piece, it’s just completely lazy to outsource your ‘opinion’ writing to a former staffer’s consultancy,” Faruqi told Guardian Australia.
“Michael Danby has some explaining to do.”
The department of finance said it did not comment on individuals or individual expense claims. But it said more broadly that printing and communications expenses must be “for the dominant purpose of conducting parliamentary business” and must be value for money. “Parliamentary business includes parliamentary duties, electorate duties, party political duties or official duties,” the department said in a statement.
“The office expenses budget may be used for relevant printing and communications, including mail outs related to a MP’s parliamentary business responsibilities.”
It’s not the first time Danby has used taxpayer funds for political attacks. In 2017, Danby charged taxpayers for an ad in the Australian Jewish News that accused the ABC’s then-Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill of bias in her reporting of Israel and Palestine.
Danby came under fire in early 2018 for charging taxpayers for trips to Queensland with his wife where no parliamentary business was conducted. At the time, Danby put the charges down to “administrative errors” that had since been repaid.
At the 2019 election, Danby’s Labor successor, Josh Burns, won the seat of Macnamara with a 5% swing towards him.