The blogosphere has been busy of late, analysing the arcane details of the PDF Tony Abbott’s office sent out on the morning of 21 April this year. The question people seem to be asking is: did Tony Abbott know about the plot against Peter Slipper by James Ashby and Mal Brough?
The media release — the text of which is here — was about the allegations made against the Speaker of the House of Representatives by his staffer James Ashby. As we know, those allegations were thrown out of court, in a scathing judgment delivered last week by Justice Steven Rares.
But the intrigue among tech bloggers continues, because it looks as though the PDF of that media release was originally created the night before the news of the federal court action actually broke. At least, that’s what the metadata on the original PDF suggests. Several bloggers have argued that, given the highly connected nature of modern servers, it is almost impossible to imagine that a computer in Tony Abbott’s Parliament House office would have had a clock running 10 hours early.
The details are hashed over in considerable technical detail by blogger Sortius in this post. Another tech blogger, The Refined Geek, has also weighed in. The story has become something of a red flag on Twitter, where those who believe that Abbott may have been in on the conspiracy have been restlessly raking over the public source information in an attempt to discover if the media release was written the night before the news broke. The implication is that if it was, that would be evidence that Abbott’s office knew of the allegations in advance.
New Matilda followed the story up, along with a number of other journalists, including the ABC’s Simon Cullen and David Crowe from The Australian. According to Parliament House itself, the whole thing is simply a glitch.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Parliamentary Services at Parliament explained that "the press release was created on the 21 April, 2012".
She wrote in an email that:
"DPS technical staff can see that the original Word document was saved at 9.07am on April 21, 2012 AEST.
The document was converted to a PDF at 9.08am on April 21, 2012 AEST.
The time on the date stamp is 10 hours behind AEST due to a technical problem."
For the record, the Opposition also denies that the media release was written on the night of 20 April. "The press release was drafted, converted into a PDF, and issued on the morning of the April 21, 2012," Abbott’s office told us in an email.
Call off the detectives! Nothing to see here, folks (although Sortius continues to pursue the issue).
The very fact that a dateline on a PDF has become a salient news item tells you something about the state of Australian politics at the end of 2012. After a year in which no scandal seemed too insignificant for serious media coverage, many have started to see conspiracies hiding behind every corner.
The animus driving the social media interest in these issues is a direct reflection of the atmosphere of distrust and partisanship that has characterised federal politics this year, as well as the media’s coverage of it. Meanwhile, serious coverage of big picture public policy continues to erode.
News Limited’s treatment of the Ashby revelations is a case in point. In contrast to the obsessive levels of scrutiny applied to every aspect of the AWU controversy, the News Limited newspapers have been exceedingly circumspect in their reporting of the finding that Mal Brough acted in combination with James Ashby to bring down the most senior elected official in the Parliament.
That’s the sort of ill-disguised bias that enrages many left-of-centre citizens and Twitter identities. But it’s hardly surprising. We’ve long known that News Limited and the Labor Government don’t see eye to eye. We also know that News has actively skewed its coverage of important public issues like carbon pricing, as an academic study has found, according to reports today.
The brouhaha over the timestamps on Tony Abbott’s media releases unfortunately misses the bigger picture, which is the scale of the Opposition Leader’s overreach on the Slipper-Ashby affair.
If we go back to the text of the media release that Abbott’s office issued on the morning that the Slipper allegations broke, we can see just how strident was the Opposition Leader’s reaction.
Abbott’s release begins by stating that "the Speaker is the presiding officer of the House of Representatives and is responsible for the orderly conduct of the House and the maintenance of standards of behaviour and integrity," before spending several paragraphs explaining just how serious the allegations were, and why they required the Prime Minister to ask the Speaker to stand aside while they were investigated.
"Against the Speaker, such allegations go to the integrity of the highest parliamentary office in the House of Representatives," the release states. "While Mr Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence, these allegations unquestionably have the potential to damage the reputation of the office of Speaker and the standing of the Parliament."
Later that day, Abbott was out and about providing comment at a doorstop interview in Hervey Bay. He made all the same points. "The Speakership is one of the most important offices in the Parliament," he told journalists. "The Speaker is there to uphold the integrity of the Parliament and now we have very, very serious allegations against the incumbent Speaker."
"He is the guardian of the standards of the Parliament, the protector of the reputation of the Parliament and now there are these extremely serious allegations against him …"
Comments like these are the appropriate place to begin asking questions of the Opposition Leader. If he really believes the office of the Speaker is so important, it is now incumbent upon him to take action against an influential member of his own party who conspired to damage it.
After all, we now know the allegations that Abbott made so much of back in April did indeed damage the reputation of the office of Speaker. It’s a fair bet they contributed to continuing erosion of the standing of parliament in the public mind too. And they were cooked up by a disgruntled staffer acting in concert with an LNP candidate for the Parliament.
Tony Abbott must act to disassociate himself and the Liberal Party from Mal Brough. Brough must be stood down as the LNP’s candidate for Fisher. Anything less condones — and indeed rewards — a key player in a conspiracy against the Speaker of the House that resulted in an abuse of the Federal Court.
If Tony Abbott is serious about preserving "the integrity of the Government and our institutions", as he said he was on 21 April, nothing less will suffice.