Federal Politics


MPs behaving badly - as usual

For all their striving to be decent, dignified and statesmanlike, federal politicians have always exhibited a weakness for low farce. The Slipper/Ashby affair, which Federal Court Justice Steven Rares concluded in a scathing judgment delivered on Wednesday, was perhaps no better or worse than any of the other febrile episodes that have convulsed federal politics from time to time. What was noteworthy about this affair, however, was its longevity and the extent to which people other than politicians and their staffers - including lawyers and PR consultants - engaged in unbecoming conduct.

Like many such scandals, this was driven by a mix of arrogance, ambition, a sense of entitlement and rank opportunism. It began when the Gillard government installed Peter Slipper (a Queensland Liberal National Party MP) as parliamentary Speaker in November last year to bolster its tiny majority on the floor of the House of Representatives. The tactic was adroit, but not without risks. Mr Slipper's behaviour in and out of Parliament over a longish career had been far from exemplary, and it was always likely the opposition would highlight this to undermine the new Speaker and destabilise the minority government.

As it happens, James Ashby, one of Mr Slipper's senior staffers at the time, was also willing to embarrass his boss, and with that in mind approached LNP figures in Queensland (including Mal Brough, a contender for preselection in Mr Slipper's safe seat of Fisher). As might be expected, they were only too happy to lend advice and assistance, and on April 22, lawyers for Mr Ashby filed a claim in the Federal Court alleging that he had been sexually harassed by Mr Slipper and that his boss had misused Cabcharge dockets. The Commonwealth, as Mr Ashby's ultimate employer, was also named as respondent. Both the government and Mr Slipper claimed it was a put-up job whose secondary purpose was to get Mr Slipper out of politics.

Once filed, the matter should have become a matter solely for the courts - and shortly after, Mr Slipper announced that he would stand aside until the issues were resolved. However, Mr Ashby's lawyers, acting in concert with public relations consultants and a journalist, mounted a vigorous publicity campaign whose main purpose appeared to be impugn the reputation of Mr Slipper. On May 18, a lawyer acting for the Commonwealth told the Federal Court that Mr Ashby had mounted a media blitz of ''highly salacious allegations'' aimed at ''character assassination'' of the Speaker, and that this amounted to a possible abuse of process.

It was a claim the government was happy to prosecute for its own political ends and to embarrass the opposition, although by electing to settle its side of the case (with a $50,000 payment to Mr Ashby in late September), it gave his claims credibility. Nonetheless, Mr Ashby's case was weakened by revelations of his meetings with LNP officials and an allegation that he was sent a text message by a newspaper reporter indicating a conspiracy to ''get'' Mr Slipper - this some time before the statement of claim was lodged. It was, ironically, Justice Rares' decision to rule ''vulgar'' text messages between Mr Slipper and Mr Ashby as admissible in court (and to release them to the public) that forced the Speaker to resign on October 9.

The sense of triumph that Mr Ashby and his team of lawyers and urgers may have felt at the humiliation and downfall of Mr Slipper has been short-lived. Justice Rares' damning judgment - with its assertion that the case was indeed an abuse of process - may have significant professional repercussions for Mr Ashby's lawyers. The judge found that Mr Ashby was motivated to ''promote his prospects of advancement or preferment by the LNP'' - a prospect that now appears highly unlikely. Mr Brough's reputation has been dealt a blow, too - as have his hopes of resuming a career on the Coalition's front bench if he succeeds in re-entering federal politics at the next election. Though the sexual harassment claim against him has been thrown out, Mr Slipper's reputation is in tatters, and the LNP has been revealed as being rather too eager to use ignoble means to achieve its aims.

The government has predictably denounced Mr Slipper's ''overthrow'' and threatened to delve further into the matter so as to maximise the Coalition's discomfort. Such confected outrage does not reflect well on Labor, however, which has readily demonstrated its own preparedness to destroy or damage the reputations of political opponents. All in all, an unedifying end to what has been a cheerless year in federal politics.