HE SWAGGERED down Peel St like a Nashville star, posing in a cowboy hat, dancing a country-style jig and even embracing a mystery blonde holding a “Free Hugs” sign.
But Prime Minister Tony Abbott has found himself in the eye of an expense scandal storm after it emerged his trip to the 2012 Country Music Festival was anything but “free” for taxpayers.
The then-Opposition leader claimed $9347 in work expenses for the whirlwind visit – despite not even staying in the city overnight.
It comes as New England MP Barnaby Joyce and a host of other politicians face growing accusations of questionable expense claims.
Rob Taber, who ran against Mr Joyce as an independent at last month’s federal poll, said the sheer sum of Mr Abbott’s expense bill in Tamworth warranted a “thorough investigation”.
“I reckon it’s bloody awful and if Abbott gets away with this, all hell will break loose,” Mr Taber said.
“I really don’t know how you could spend $10,000 in one day in Tamworth.
“We desperately need new guidelines on what constitutes an entertainment expense and what’s government business because we’re heading nowhere at the moment.
“A lot of these politicians are treading a fine line and they damn well know it.”
The parliamentary entitlements register shows taxpayers forked out $8800 for a private return charter flight for Mr Abbott from Sydney to Tamworth on January 25, 2012.
There is no indication on the register of where the other $547 was spent.
Mr Abbott could not be reached for comment on his Tamworth visit but told a press conference yesterday: "I believe that all of my claims have been within entitlement and I think you’ll find that there were quite a few other community events involved in those visits.”
His visit to the city coincided with a concerted push by the Coalition to claim back the seat of New England from long-standing independent Tony Windsor.
Mr Abbott’s whistlestop tour included a visit with Mr Joyce to The Leader offices to meet then-editor John Sommerlad, a stopover at the Riverside campgrounds and a concert by performer Bob Corbett.
He also walked Peel St with country star Adam Harvey and mayor Col Murray, had lunch with local councillors and drew the winner of a local raffle.
Despite criticism over the cost of the visit, Tamworth Festival Stakeholders Group chairman Barry Harley said giving a future prime minister a front row seat to the city’s most iconic event was money well spent.
“I believe any visit from a politician of that standing only serves to reinforce the brand of Tamworth as the country music capital,” Mr Harley said.
“Any increase in knowledge about the event can only benefit the community in future political debate about it.
“I don’t know if it was a valid work expense but I certainly see it as a massive benefit for Tamworth.
“We’ve had a lot of politicians come by over the years but to have a future prime minister present at the festival does a lot for its credibility.”
Former Tamworth state member Peter Draper said while Mr Abbott’s visit was “probably a justifiable expense”, it was important all politicians claimed work expenses judiciously.
“I think any politician should always err on the side of caution,” Mr Draper said.
“The onus is on the individual but my policy always was if I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with something, then it was wrong.
“Deep down, you know when it’s official business and you know when you’re trying to do it for the sake of your own expenses.”