Mal Brough Still In The Frame Over ‘Ashbygate’ Theft Of Speaker’s Diary

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Politics is a funny game, with many unexpected twists and turns. But of all the surprises of Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet, the resurrection of Mal Brough might just be the most unexpected.

Brough is a tough and organised former Army officer who got into politics in Queensland in the 1990s. Winning the seat of Longman in the 1996 election that swept John Howard to office, Brough went to serve as a minister in Howard’s cabinet – most notably as the Minister for Indigenous Affairs from 2006 to 2007.

In that capacity he brought us the Northern Territory Emergency Response, a policy so discriminatory that it required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act for its implementation.

As New Matilda’s Chris Graham wrote on Sunday, the Emergency Response cost Australian taxpayers billions, but delivered little in basic services, and never uncovered the paedophile rings that were the basis of the public scare campaign that justified it. As Graham points out, “the minister who conceived this, you would think, would never work again.”

But Brough is working again – and as the Special Minister of State, no less. That puts him in charge of government advertising, the Australian Electoral Commission… oh, and Parliamentary entitlements, and any investigations into their rorting. Bronwyn Bishop must be sleeping a little easier since the new ministry’s announcement.

But it is Brough’s role in the James Ashby affair that may prove to be most significant for his future in Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet. That role could well end up costing Turnbull more than a little heartache in months to come.

Just a week into the Turnbull era, we’ve learned that the Special Minister of State is subject to a police investigation.

Ashbygate, as it has been christened by many in the independent media, is a rolling circus of dubious deals and unseemly backroom manoeuvres that ultimately resulted in the resignation of a Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, and the election of Brough to his seat.

Back in 2012, a federal court judge said Brough was mixed up in a “combination” that conspired to bring down the highest office holder in Australia’s Parliament for expressly political gain. Brough has always denied this. He says that he “colluded with no-one” and that a successful appeal against that judgement vindicates his conduct.

Cast your mind back to 2011. The government of Julia Gillard, weighed down by internal disunity and unpopular policies, was struggling to hold onto a razor-thin parliamentary majority. Labor’s leader in the House, Anthony Albanese, engineered a complex and arguably unscrupulous deal to replace Labor’s Harry Jenkins with Slipper, a long-serving Liberal-National backbencher whose own career was going nowhere.

Slipper had been representing the people of the Sunshine Coast for nearly three decades, but by the time of Tony Abbott’s ascension to the Liberal leadership, his star was on the wane. Matters weren’t helped by some very bad publicity about his extravagant expense claims, claims that he defended, but which none-the-less looked pretty bad.

But Slipper’s real problem was that Mal Brough wanted back into politics.

After some years in the wilderness following his defeat in 2007 (Brough tried and failed to stop the Liberal-National Party merger in Queensland, resigning as President of the Queensland party in pique) Brough went after a winnable seat on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. With the backing of Queensland LNP numbers man Mark McCardle, Brough was easily able to engineer pre-selection in the seat of Fisher. Which just happened to be Slipper’s own seat.

As everyone could see, Slipper was finished as a parliamentarian, certainly after the next election. But he might not be finished in politics. Albanese’s offer of the Speakership proved all too tempting.

The result of the deal meant that Slipper became the speaker, and Labor’s Jenkins went to the backbench. That gave Julia Gillard one more vote on the floor of the House – a crucial advantage in a hung parliament.

The Coalition went beserk. Slipper’s deal was a win for the hated Gillard government that Tony Abbott was even then demanding call an early election. He was denounced by his colleagues as a traitor and depicted by the Daily Telegraph as “King Rat”, complete with tail and whiskers.

Behind the scenes, a plot was hatched. In Peter Slipper’s office worked a young man named James Ashby. Ashby had no obvious political or policy credentials. He came to work for Slipper via stints in FM radio and the backwaters of the Queensland LNP. But then again, as a lowly backbencher, Slipper was hardly in the position to hire the best talent. Slipper took Ashby with him when he ascended to the role of Speaker.

By early 2012, however, Ashby was no longer working for Slipper, his ostensible boss. He was in fact working for Slipper’s factional enemies, Mark McCardle and Mal Brough. This fact is clearly established by the many text message exchanged between McCardle, Ashby and Brough.

Ashby has always claimed that he was simply reaching out to trusted party elders about the sexual harassment he claimed he experienced from Slipper.

Certainly, when that sexual harassment complaint became public, the ensuing scandal quickly engulfed Slipper. As I wrote last year, the prurient stain of sexual harassment had an added twist of gay innuendo, which the Murdoch newspapers were only too happy to pick up on. The controversy over the harassment allegations and Slipper’s travel entitlements destroyed his political career. Slipper was forced him to resign.

But we will never really know if Slipper did make inappropriate, non-consensual advances towards Ashby, as Ashby alleged. Ashby abandoned his civil claim against Slipper last year. The judgment that overturned Justice Rares’ initial move to throw out the complaint did not prove Ashby or his allegations, but merely allowed the civil case to proceed. But it didn’t proceed, denying lawyers the chance to cross-examine Ashby, Slipper, McCardle and Brough.

What we do know, courtesy of the various court documents, and also via interviews from Brough himself, is that Ashby provided Brough with a copy of Peter Slipper’s diary. This has become a new focus for controversy, as lawyers and journalists have questioned whether this amounts to evidence of a criminal act.

In an interview with 60 Minutes’ Liz Hayes, Brough said last year that he asked Ashby to procure copies of Slipper’s official diary, presumably as evidence for Ashby’s ensuing sexual harassment claim.

LIZ HAYES: “Did you ask James Ashby to procure copies of Peter Slipper’s diary for you?”

MAL BROUGH: “Yes I did.”

After that interview, Labor backbencher Graham Perrett referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police. After all, many wondered, if what Brough appeared to admit was true, could it be that Brough had acted illegally?

Was Slipper’s diary stolen by Ashby? If so, was Brough the procurer and recipient of a stolen document?

The available evidence says yes. In his public statements since coming back into the cabinet, Brough has argued that the successful appeal against Justice Rares’ initial judgment effectively clears him of any conspiracy against Slipper.

But the appeal judgment is very clear that Brough received details of Slipper’s diary from James Ashby and another Slipper staffer, Karen Doane. As mentioned, text messages cited in the 2012 judgment between Ashby and Brough explicitly mention the diary. And in paragraphs 253 and 254 of the 2014 dissenting judgment in the Ashby vs Slipper appeal, Justice Siopis pointed out that:

… without advising Mr Slipper (who, as I have said, was out of the country) of their intention to do so, Mr Ashby and Ms Doane contacted Mr Brough and Mr Lewis and started supplying each of them with copies of extracts from Mr Slipper’s diaries in order to assist Mr Lewis in his investigation of Mr Slipper’s use of his travel entitlements…. On one occasion, Mr Brough expressed dissatisfaction with the legibility of the diary extract which had been sent to him by Mr Ashby and asked him to provide a more legible copy of the diary extract. Mr Ashby did so.

And yet, Brough is already denying that this took place. In an interview with the ABC’s Emma Alberici this week, Brough tried to walk back from his 60 Minutes admission about receiving the diary.

EMMA ALBERICI: You asked Peter Slipper’s staffer James Ashby to make copies of Peter Slipper’s private diary. Was that appropriate?

MAL BROUGH: No, that’s not correct. I mean, I know that that’s what’s been reported, but that is not exactly the right description of what occurred. But what I can tell you is that I stand by every action that I’ve taken….

EMMA ALBERICI: What part of what I just said then was not accurate?

MAL BROUGH: Well all of these matters have been canvassed and dealt with by the courts, not that I was every involved….

EMMA ALBERICI: But you’ve previously admitted that you asked for the procurement of those diaries. You’ve admitted on the public record.

MAL BROUGH: When you ask me a question, I’m trying to give you a straight answer and the reality is, is that what we’re now dealing with are matters that have been dealt with with Mr Slipper, with the courts and with Mr Ashby and his lawyers over a very long period of time.…

As dogged independent journalist Margo Kingston wrote yesterday, “the Ashby scandal was one of the nastiest episodes on Mr Abbott’s nasty record as opposition leader and prime minister, and now it haunts the new Government”.

Indeed it does. The Australian Federal Police have stated that they are still investigating the stolen diary.

That means Brough must still be in the frame.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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