Two substantial protest groups went head-to-head in Albury on Wednesday over sidelined Health Minister Sussan Ley and a widening expenses scandal.
Deputy mayor Amanda Cohn led a crowd of around 80 outside Ms Ley’s office and called for a crackdown on politicians’ perks, with some hecklers swearing and acting in a threatening manner.
A man dressed in a white t-shirt and sunglasses knocked a notebook out of this reporter’s hands during a headcount of the crowd.
On the other side of Kiewa Street was a similarly sized gathering in support of Ms Ley that included Father Peter MacLeod-Miller, who said the Farrer MP should not be scapegoated because of public displeasure with politicians’ entitlements.
“The people protesting outside Ms Ley’s office, they’d find this situation challenging too,” he said.
“I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to express their anxiety and displeasure, not at all.
“But I do think they’re possibly misunderstanding that you don’t fix the system by sacrificing one individual.”
But Cr Cohn, who ran as a Greens candidate against Ms Ley in last year’s federal election, stressed her protest was not about personally targeting the Health Minister.
“Sussan Ley isn’t actually the problem,” she said.
“(She) is just a symbol of a much bigger problem that’s been going on for years, and that’s our politicians who are completely out of touch with the everyday experience of Australians like us.
“Whether it’s Julie Bishop charging us to go and watch the polo as a guest of a private company … or even on the other side of politics where the Labor MP Tony Burke spent $16,000 in three days on chartered private flights.”
The Turnbull government moved quickly this week in an effort to quell the fallout from Ms Ley’s expenses revelations, promising to reform politicians’ perks within six months.
Acting Special Minister of State Kelly O'Dwyer said it would act on changes recommended by an independent report that was commissioned in the wake of Bronwyn Bishop’s infamous Choppergate scandal.
“A clear definition of what official business is is obviously at the centre of the changes that need to be made,” she said.
The review said the language should be changed from “entitlements” to “work expenses”, and said using a COMCAR for personal journeys should be banned.
A mentor of the embattled Health Minister said she is “extremely upset” as the scandal surrounding her travel expenses deepens, with some government members admitting privately her return to the frontbench would be "completely untenable".
Farrer Electorate Council president Angus Macneil said he spoke to Ms Ley on Monday night after she defiantly fronted the media about 27 taxpayer-funded trips she took to Queensland in recent years, including one where she purchased an $800,000 beachfront apartment.
“She was extremely upset about it all,” he said.
“It’s not a deliberate attempt to rort the system, it’s an oversight of what she’s been doing.
“I think she was doing an excellent job and it’s a shame just as she’s got her head around the portfolio that she can’t be there, I’m hoping she’ll be back.”
Former Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler said Ms Ley had lost credibility as Health Minister given she had warned doctors against overcharging.
“You can’t credibly stand up and accuse others of rorts when there’s a question mark over your own head,” he said.
One Liberal MP told Fairfax Media on the condition of anonymity that the party room was taken aback by the scandal surrounding Ms Ley, who was not known for making dubious travel claims.
"This is not the Sussan Ley I thought I knew," the MP said.
"I can't see her coming back. This is about judgment."
Another Liberal MP said there was no "great degree of goodwill" towards Ms Ley in the Coalition.
"She's seen as a good minister but not a superstar so she's not integral to the government's agenda."
The Border Medical Association was contacted for comment.