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.