13 Dec 2012

Slipper Conspiracy A Coalition Win

By Ben Eltham
Mal Brough and James Ashby may have lost their court case, but they've achieved their aim: Peter Slipper has been discredited and the Coalition is likely to win back his seat, writes Ben Eltham
The disintegration of the Peter Slipper sexual harassment suit is an appropriate way to end a political year marked by rancour, scandal and contumely. Not for the first time in opposition, Liberal Party politicians in hot pursuit of a damaging government scandal have found themselves with some very uncomfortable questions to answer.

What is this all about? Not to put too fine a point on it, there was a conspiracy to bring down the highest officer of the Parliament. It was a largely successful conspiracy, too, achieving its ultimate end of damaging and discrediting the speaker of the House of Representatives.

The controversy started with allegations of sexual harassment by the speaker, Peter Slipper, against a staffer, James Ashby. They were serious, and Slipper was quickly forced to stand aside while they were investigated.

The allegations were cooked up for political gain. According to Federal Court Justice Steven Rares, the whole affair was brought to the court "for the predominant purpose of causing significant public, reputational and political damage to Mr Slipper". Rares found that James Ashby "acted in combination" with another Slipper staffer, Karen Doane, and Liberal-National Party politician Mal Brough "in order to advance the interests of the LNP and Mr Brough."

Because of this, Rares found the action was an abuse of the Federal Court. He refused to even consider whether the alleged sexual harassment took place. A comprehensive slap down, in anyone's language.

The implications of this damning judgment are wide. For Mal Brough, in particular, they surely call into question his candidacy for Federal Parliament. Brough, a former cabinet minister in John Howard's government, lost his seat in the 2007 election, and has been active in the Queensland LNP ever since. He is now the endorsed LNP candidate for Slipper's federal seat of Fisher, and many expect him to be elevated to the Coalition front-bench should he win.

Brough's machinations to unseat Peter Slipper were in fact the original trigger for Slipper's defection, which created the opportunity for Labor to engineer his elevation to the position of Speaker. Brough has long coveted another seat in the Parliament, and after settling on his Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, he fought and won a bitter pre-selection battle to replace Slipper as the LNP candidate there.

After Slipper turned coats on his former party, it now appears that Brough conspired with two of Slipper's staffers to bring down the elected official with a messy sexual harassment case. That's a very serious finding.

The explosive judgment also implicates Queensland Energy Minister Mark McCardle. McCardle's state electorate is also on the Sunshine Coast, and he is the chair of the LNP committee for Fisher; he also has prominent factional influence within Queensland's quarrelsome LNP. Ashby sent a number of texts to McCardle, one of which referred to a meeting some weeks previously, which appeared to suggest that he and McCardle had spoken about Slipper.

"I've decided to press ahead with what I spoke to u about some weeks ago," Ashby texted McCardle, according to the judgment. "It's going to the biggest challenge of my life, but this man needs stopping. He's hurt too many people."

Then there's the shadow attorney-general, Senator George Brandis. Brandis, another Queenslander, was highly critical of the Speaker while this affair played out, and made a number of rather questionable and incendiary comments in the Senate in regards to the Federal Court. Now that the very same Federal Court has ruled that his own party conspired in an abuse of the process of that court, many are questioning the acuity of Brandis' supposedly razor sharp legal mind.

What about James Ashby, the young man at the centre of this controversy? He emerges from this judgment with little integrity. Rares finds that the naïve young staffer cooked up the accusations with the express intention of ruining his boss. During the internal battle between Slipper and Brough, Ashby posed as a Slipper loyalist, but was acting as a double agent. Foolishly, Ashby did little to cover his tracks and left a damning trail of electronic communications, many of which shed negative light on his character, as well as his knowledge of Australian democracy. In one unintentionally hilarious exchange, Ashby urged Slipper to try for the speakership, without realising that the Speaker needed also to be a Member of Parliament ("A tactical thought that would allow u to remain in parliament without having to have a seat," Ashby texted).

Another who must face scrutiny is News Limited journalist Steve Lewis. Lewis is a long time attack dog, who seems to take a special interest in anti-government stories with a sleazy edge. As such, he has been the favoured conduit by which conservative politicians splash sensational claims into the public domain. In many cases, the stories Lewis published were later found to be wrong. For instance, during the "Utegate" affair, Lewis broke the allegations regarding the email from inside Treasury, later found to be faked by Godwin Grech. Lewis also assiduously pursued the AWU non-scandal, even though he wasn't able to turn up any convincing evidence of wrongdoing by the Prime Minister.

With Ashby, the Rares judgment shows that Lewis was intimately involved in the framing of the plot. It is true that Rares largely excuses Lewis' behaviour, saying he was on the trail of what he thought would be a hot story and that this was appropriate conduct for a journalist. But Rares also finds that Lewis was clearly referring to Slipper when he texted Ashby at one point, writing "we will get him!!" and "I am here to help!!!" Ashby at one point stayed in a hotel room paid for by News Limited. It seems pretty clear Lewis was, in a very real sense, encouraging him to take the action he did, in the hope of a front page story. This makes Lewis an integral part of the plot. He was knowingly and willingly acting as the chosen vehicle for the reputational and political harm planned for Slipper by the conspirators.

To put it another way, one of the most senior press gallery journalists in the country was intimately involved in a political conspiracy to tear down the highest elected official of the Parliament. It's no wonder that journalists have such poor reputations.

The Slipper affair shows why this term of Parliament has been so nasty and bitter. Rather than accept the legitimacy of Julia Gillard's minority government, the Opposition has consciously tried to attack it and its integrity at every turn. Instead of developing constructive alternative policies, the Coalition has engaged in a zero sum war of attrition that has left both major parties damaged in the eyes of voters. It has hatched plots and engineered dirty tricks to destroy Labor with fell-swoop controversies, rather than build support through the more traditional methods of policy development and debate. Worse, much of the media has followed the Opposition's lead, seizing upon hazy conspiracies and poorly substantiated allegations with an alacrity that has been little tempered by the exercise of judgment, or the gathering of hard facts.

Given the prevailing climate of distrust, the Government will now be tempted to launch an inquiry of some kind into this conspiracy, with the hope of inflicting more damage on the LNP in Queensland. There is always the possibility that the conspirators counted more senior Liberals among their outer circle — after all, we know that Christopher Pyne met with James Ashby in the time that this conspiracy was underway. Even if no juicy details emerge, there will certainly be the opportunity to put some further pressure on the fractures within the LNP, with a view to picking up some Queensland seats in the 2013 election.

That's the thing about dirty tricks. They have a tendency to backfire on their initiators.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for Peter Slipper, a surprisingly good Speaker who, as far as we know, has not done anything wrong. Slipper's elevation was always about the politics of the minority parliament, rather than the principle of an independent speaker. Even so, of all the parties in this sordid affair, it is Slipper who has been dealt the worst hand, and who has suffered the harshest consequences. Brough, on the other hand, is still the LNP candidate for Fisher, and has every chance of taking the former speaker's seat in the next parliament.

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Lifesabeach
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 14:36

Do we not have laws against treason in this country. How much further can the coalition stretch legality until something finally breaks?

geoffdb
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 16:48

Have you heard the rumor of Coalition back-benchers organising a fund-raiser to help with Mr Ashby's swelling legal costs?
Story goes that it's named the Godwin Grech Appeal to salute an earlier would-be Coalition plotter with similar vision (and integrity) - and that Steve Lewis of News Ltd may once more help to stoke this one along.

But then again, perhaps it's just a rumor ...?

denniallen
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 17:05

Think you may have jumped the gun there Ben...I think you might find Brough will HAVE to step down....MSM may be ignoring it but this is not over yet by a long shot....

compass1312
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 18:54

...and much much more will come out in the appeal.

Jungarrayi
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 19:08

Jungarrayi
As someone that lives on one of Mal Brough's 'Prescribed Areas', this sordid business has given me an exquisite feeling of Schadenfreude.
Mal Brough was one of the main architects of the so called Intervention (Northern Territory Emergency Response) that has done and continues to do (under its new badge 'Stronger Futures')untold damage to the social fabric of remote Aboriginal communities. Never did he retract nor apologise for those lies he told (paedophile rings, widespread dysfunction etc.)
Should he through his dirty tricks be re-elected to parliament there is a good chance he'd end up becoming Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
He'd be able to continue his assimilationist attack. Jenny Macklin has kept his seat warm.
Frank

lyngain
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 21:28

Lyn Gain
I agree deniallen, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised, compass1312, if there turns out to be no appeal. Bravo Steven Rares - an honest, intelligent and fearless judgement - as refreshing as it is unprecedented in today's world. And Jungarrayi, yes it's a scandal for the ALP that Jenny Macklin so enthusiastically embraced the paternalistic conservative hype from the very beginning. Nevertheless if the government can't make media capital out of this next year, despite the msm resistance, I truly will give up on them in disgust.

Nico Machean
Posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - 09:48

Oh Ben you little Labor horse. You conveniently forget to mention how the government paid Ashby out in the sum of $50k which Rares J says is far more than the accuser would have received even if the allegations were true and he proved his case. Why don't you comment on the possible motivations for making such a deal?

Olivier
Posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - 13:28

So Justice Rares says this was an LNP (Brough/Ashby/McCardle/Doane) conspiracy against now-ex-MP Slipper, with LP SEN Brandis and Murdoch Journo Lewis getting in their kicks while the victim was on the ground. Does anyone else still remember the Godwin Gretch conspiracy, or the "Great Big Carbon Tax"?
Take note Voters, the lesson will be repeated until learned!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - 17:06

Gee, Ben, I'm sure you wrote a declamatory article for NM back when Labor bribed Slipper with the Speaker's Chair, pointing out this was a conspiracy to abuse the processes of parliament for the sole purpose of changing the voting balance -- specifically to deny the Coalition (and the electors of Fisher, who had voted Conservative) Slipper's vote on the floor -- but I must have missed it.

How Ashby's court action can have been a conspiracy to bring down the government defeats me -- at its most imaginative it restored the numbers on the floor to where they were before Slipper's defection, when I seem to recall Labor was in government. And how imaginative that needs to be, since there was no likelihood of a conviction for an indictable offence, Ashby's action being a civil one and the police having said they could find nothing wrong with Slipper's Cabcharge dockets, so getting Slipper out of parliament and replaced at a by-election by Mal Brough would require him to be made bankrupt by next May or so, years before the appeals process would have run its course and an utterly unlikely level of damages and costs would have any chance of bankrupting him, always assuming his Labor friends did not come to the party with the necessary.

And even then, post by-election all you have is the same numbers on the floor of the house which supported the Gillard government back then and would seem unlikely to support Abbott now just because he could have Brough on his front bench.

By the way, Slipper would almost certainly have been replaced by Brough (or someone similar) for the 2010 election were it not for a quirk in the agreement to unite the Liberal and National parties in Queensland to form the Pineapple Party, which provided that no sitting member would be challenged for preselection. Slipper was on the nose with the Federal Liberal Party who wanted to see him replaced, and those in the know thought he lacked the numbers in his electorate's branches to survive a challenge backed by Canberra.

And for what it is worth, Judge Rares <i>did</i> say Ashby had probably experienced sexual harrassment at the hands etc of Slipper, but that he did not need to determine the matter because he was striking out Ashby's action on the separate grounds of abuse of process.

Paradoxically Rares' judgement may itself serve the political interests of the Coalition, should the appeal go their way, as this will put the trial of the facts back in Rares' court right about the time Gillard will be thinking of an April election so as avoid the embarrassment of bringing down a budget, which despite $40billion of fiddles (which you should be calling a conspiracy to abuse the processes of Treasury) will still not deliver even a wafer-thin surplus.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - 17:16

While we're all indulging our appetite for <i>shadenfreude</i>, Jungarrayi, don't forget that self-important prat Senator George Brandis QC has been left with kilos of egg on his smug face after asserting there wasn't a chance in the world Rares would dismiss the action as an abuse of process.

And in the unlikely event you might be considering consulting him on some legal matter, he nailed his colours even further up the mast by claiming this was just the advice he would be giving any clients findng themselves in a similar suit.

Frank from Frankston
Posted Friday, December 14, 2012 - 17:43

Ben,
I find this line deeply disturbing:
"He refused to even consider whether the alleged sexual harassment took place. "

What's the point of a court if you can't get justice? Ashby was either harassed or he wasn't!

And:
"...one of the most senior press gallery journalists in the country was intimately involved in a political conspiracy to tear down the highest elected official of the Parliament. "

Well, this goes on daily and has done so for at least 30 plus years. Taxpayers fork out 1 Billion dollars per annum so ABC leftist activists can construct ALP/Green victories. Then we have Fairfax.

The blurring of "activist" with "journalist" in an environment where millions are used to reach a powerful audience - thereby excluding the majority of citizens from effective participation. This is the reason for whatever "decline" you perceive in people's regard for the media.

This wasn't started by the conservatives btw - it was the Fabian attitude d left that did the deed.*

A declaration that you are/are not an "opinion writer" rather than a "journalist" is the least we, the victims, should expect from our billion dollar media dictators...

Non compulsory voting should be instigated so that Australians aren't railroaded into legitimising these overly powerful, privileged, taxpayer bank rolled, party hacks.

It would be a beautiful day when a majority of Australians get to vote "none of the above", via their feet, exercising a genuinely democratic freedom of choice on polling day.

The taxpayer subsidised - in fact taxed - validation of today's party hacks is a continuing source of nausea. Taxpayer's are blackmailed to attend an allocation of preferences. Their civil rights to urge others not to vote for any candidate is proscribed by law. Their civil rights to urge others to allocate 1 to their favoured candidate and 2 to the rest is proscribed by law. Their taxpayer contributions are allocated out - not across all candidates - but to the taxpayer funded hacks of a largely two party state.

Major media activists garner power and influence in the process of supporting the above.

Everyone forgotten M on the plane counseling Paul not to be making the biggest political mistake of his career? One Activist - falsely represented by her news organisation to be a journalist - guiding a politician to an electoral victory. No objection to that here?

* I remember the day I noticed it. All three Melbourne dailies started running puff pieces on immigrant success/struggle stories - on the same day. Where did it come from? It was obviously co-ordinated somewhere. No news value - just sheer propaganda. You might agree with the sentiment - but it was as anti-democratic as any third world dictatorship can get. Campaign journalism is simply Activism. And even a used car salesman shoots straighter than that! "I am a used car salesman". There are laws preventing them from declaring themselves to be medical professionals. Whereas, the humble victim of media is constantly told that their media gatekeepers are journalists - when in fact they are activists.

Sean
Posted Monday, December 17, 2012 - 19:56

I seem to remember a far Right 'Labor' flack called 'Richo' whose motto was 'whatever it takes', so bringing down govts by any means is not necessarily limited to the LNP. I always wondered why Tweedledum and Tweedledee fought so much when they were so alike -- possibly because only one could hold the rattle at a time.

Wonder whether Slipper and possibly the govt can counter-sue the parties involved if there's enough evidence, or have the AFP investigate and charge a few of them -- might cut a bigger swathe through the NLP seats than the Slipper-Thompson gambit...

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Tuesday, December 18, 2012 - 03:10

@Sean
I didn't know Neuro Linguistic Programming held seats in the Federal Parliament – that New Age mind control is getting in everywhere!

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