Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she had asked a lawmaker embroiled in a scandal over payment for prostitutes to quit the Labor Party, in a blow to her fragile minority rule.
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.
Gillard on Sunday said Thomson strongly denied the allegations and was entitled to the presumption of innocence but she had made a judgement call based on the need to preserve parliament's reputation.
"I indicated to Mr Thomson that I had decided it was appropriate for him to no longer participate in Labor caucus; to be suspended from the Labor Party," Gillard told reporters in Canberra.
The prime minister said she had also asked parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper, who faces claims he sexually harassed a male staffer and misused taxi services, to stand aside for "a further period of time".
Gillard said both Thomson and Slipper, who is an independent lawmaker, denied the allegations against them, and she would not prejudge them, but she needed to take action to protect the dignity of government.
"I feel keenly that Australians are looking at this parliament and at the moment they see a dark cloud over it," she said.
"I want to ensure that Australians can look at this building, look at this institution and feel respect for this institution."
Gillard, whose centre-left Labor government is flailing in opinion polls, has led a fragile minority government since deadlocked August 2010 elections.
With Thomson's move to the crossbenches, Labor now holds just 71 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, compared with the conservative opposition's 72.
However, Gillard has the support of two independents, a Greens MP and Thomson, who said he would support the government against any no-confidence motion and in supply bills, to give her control of the lower house.
Thomson maintained his innocence but admitted the allegations against him had proven "a distraction for the government".
Slipper, who quit the opposition Liberal Party last year to become an independent and take up the role of speaker, said he also rejected the allegations against him but to uphold the "dignity of the parliament" would cede his duties to his deputy when parliament resumed on May 8.
"This will avoid what could be a controversial debate on the floor of the parliament, which would not assist the standing of the parliament," he said.
Analysts said the loss of Thomson would not dramatically affect voting on legislature in the House, but had prevented the "disaster" of Thomson resigning and forcing a by-election that Labor would almost certainly lose.
"It adds to the picture of the vulnerability of the government," Haydon Manning, a political analyst at Flinders University told AFP.
Monash University's Nick Economou agreed Thomson's move would not make a great deal of difference to the government's hold on power. "It looks spectacular but it's like a thunderstorm where it doesn't rain," he said.
Commenting on why it had taken her so long to act on Thomson, who has been at the centre of the allegations for years despite no charges being laid, Gillard said a line had been crossed.
"And I believe a line has been crossed about respect for the parliament and that has given me sufficient concern that I believe it was the right thing to act," she said.© ANP/AFP