Slipper's Media Attack Dogs


Once again scandal grips the Gillard government.

A fortnight ago it was Craig Thomson. Before that, Kevin Rudd was tilting at the leadership. Now, a sleazy web of allegations has surrounded the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper.

You’d be forgiven for scratching your head at exactly why the Slipper affair has attracted such prominent media attention. Well, unless you understood the alacrity with which the media seizes upon scandals of any nature, let alone juicy allegations including gay sexual harassment and taxi charge rorting.

Even so, the only reason that the speaker is currently the focus of vast media attention is because of the unusual difficulties that Julia Gillard’s government now finds itself in. In ordinary times, the speaker is a minor figure in the political firmament, scarcely worthy of more than a passing mention as the person who hands out warnings and endless intones "order" during interminable Question Time debates.

New Matilda readers, who are a discerning bunch, will no doubt remember the last Speaker of the House was Harry Jenkins. Jenkins, a long-suffering type who struggled nobly against the antics of querulous parliamentarians, is in fact the only speaker who has held the office twice. But can you remember who was speaker before Jenkins? (It was David Hawker, for the record). And did you know, for instance, that the speaker is in fact an important executive of the parliament — responsible for the administration of the Department of the House? As the parliament’s website helpfully notes, "for many purposes the Speaker is in effect, ‘Minister’ for the Department of the House of Representatives, with a similar role to that of a Minister of State in relation to a government department."

It’s fair to say, in other words, that most Australian voters don’t really know what the speaker does, or why. The reason they’ve heard about Peter Slipper this week is that accusations about his his taxi expenses and workplace sexual harassment play all too easily into the dominant media narrative of an unpopular government in crisis, mired in sleaze.

So let’s try and separate the facts from the media frenzy.

What’s been alleged? That Peter Slipper has misused cab vouchers — a potentially criminal matter, and that Slipper sexually harassed a House staffer, James Ashby. Ashby is pursuing civil proceedings against the Commonwealth, having engaged the same lawyers that represented former David Jones publicist Kristy Fraser-Kirk in her case against the retailer.

These are undoubtedly serious matters and reflect on the integrity of the character of the speaker. In dealing with them, Slipper has sought to follow the recent precedents for senior politicians under investigation, which is to treat civil allegations differently from criminal ones.

Slipper has stood aside from the speakership while the cab allegations are being investigated by the Australian Federal Police. The current suggestion is that he will return once these matters are concluded, even if the civil proceedings drag on. In other words, Slipper will seek to continue his duties even while matters involving the civil claims from Ashby play out in the courts — just as other politicians, like Labor’s Craig Thomson and Liberal Malcolm Turnbull have done previously. In keeping with convention, Slipper will not even enter the House chamber until he formally resumes his role.

Let’s remind ourselves, as Lenore Taylor sought to this morning, that Peter Slipper has not been charged with anything. He is not even a defendant in the proceedings brought by Ashby: the defendant is in fact the Commonwealth, as his employer. (Correction: Slipper is the second respondent in proceedings.) In contrast, Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher has been found guilty of assault — although not convicted — during this term of parliament, a matter which has attracted rather less attention.

So why, exactly, are the Slipper allegations such a big deal? The answer is political. In a hung parliament in which Labor requires the support of Greens and independents to govern, even one member of the House can mean the difference between business as usual and a fresh general election. So if Slipper is forced to resign Labor loses a crucial vote on the floor of the house, making its slender majority that much more precarious.

It’s also worth remembering that Slipper is only the Speaker now because of an opaque tactical manoeuvre engineered by Anthony Albanese at the end of last year, in which the previous Speaker, Harry Jenkins resigned, and Labor supported Slipper to become the new Speaker. It was always a risky move, not least because rumours of travel rorts regarding Slipper stretch back several years. Now, of course, the Slipper manoeuvre looks to have backfired, at least in the court of media opinion.

That, increasingly, is where the the Gillard government faces the equivalent of a hanging judge. Just look at the way this story played out, beginning with a big splash in a Murdoch newspaper. In much of the coverage, a widespread fallacy is advanced along the lines that the government "installed" Peter Slipper as the speaker. In fact, he was already the deputy speaker and was elected by the floor of the House, including by Labor, three independents and a Green. This misconception extends to the coverage suggesting that Slipper is part of the government itself, when of course he occupies a position constitutionally and administratively separate from the executive.

But hey, why worry about constitutional niceties when there’s the possibility of blood on the floor? Last night’s Lateline interview between the ABC’s Emma Alberici and Attorney-General Nicola Roxon shows the difficulty that even the national public broadcaster encounters when covering matters of a sensitive legal and constitutional nature.

Nicola Roxon is Australia’s first female Attorney-General. She duxed law at Melbourne University, worked as a senior associate at Maruice Blackburn Cashman, and as an associate to High Court Justice Mary Gaudron. She is, in other words, eminently qualified for the role. As you’d expect, she made a strong case for defending the presumption of innocence in the current proceedings: "we have a legal system so those complaints can be tested, so people are given the opportunity to defend them," she pointed out.

In contrast, the ABC’s Alberici conducted a misinformed interview that alternated between legal perplexity and ignorant hostility. In answer to Roxon’s defence of the presumption of innocence, for instance, she interrupted the Attorney-General to argue that "virtually every commentator in the land is echoing the thoughts of the Opposition on this one."

Showing that she simply doesn’t understand what the presumption of innocence means, Alberici added that "Tony Abbott is certainly not alone in suggesting this is more than just your run-of-the-mill accusation against a member of the Parliament." Later in the interview, she asked Roxon whether it was "appropriate" for the complainant, James Ashby, to remain employed in the Speaker’s Office — thereby effectively questioning the credibility of the complainant. Imagine a reporter asking whether it was appropriate for a female complainant to remain employed in the firm in which she had just lodged sexual harassment complaints, and you can begin to understand how little Alberici understood about the matter at hand.

Of course, legal niceties are rarely top of the agenda where political scandals are concerned. Over at the Daily Telegraph, the headline today read "Slippery Peter Slipper gets to keep his salary," again completely ignoring the fact that so far, Slipper has not been found to have done anything wrong.

Politics is not a fair game, in any case. Many are the politicians hounded from office on trumped up charges, spurious accusations, or lurid sexual slurs that have nothing to do with his or her competence in office. Just ask former New South Wales Labor Minister David Campbell, outed in the most unforgiving circumstances by the Seven Network in the dying days of the last state Labor government.

The current controversy over Peter Slipper’s alleged improprieties has many of the same hallmarks of the Campbell affair. It is superficially portrayed as being in public interest, while glorying in lurid details of nudges and winks. It has little relevance to the track record of the man in question — which in Slipper’s case has been refreshingly non-partisan in a role whose chief requirement is non-partisanship — and everything to do with the partisan political considerations of the moment.

Most obviously of all, it’s about personal conduct and prurient sexual intrigue, rather than any substantive matters of public policy and administration.

None of this is to defend Peter Slipper’s actions, if the allegations turn out to be true. But it is worth pointing out that the political situation is no reason to skew the reporting of the facts and legal principles of a serious matter.

It is true that Julia Gillard’s government is unpopular. It is true that many voters don’t like minority government and would like an election to get rid of the current lot. It is true that the current Speaker is accused of serious impropriety and that he was elected to the role as a result of a back-room parliamentary deal. But so what? It is also true that the current government is governing constitutionally, supported by a majority of the representatives voted in by the Australian people, and that the Speaker has so far not been found guilty of anything.

How much emphasis you place on these various facts is a matter of judgment. You might look at the opinion polls and the newspapers and judge that the government is "in crisis". Or you might look at the many laws it has passed and policies it has enacted, and conclude that it appears to be executing its stated agenda with impressive follow-through.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.