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Ashby, Slipper and muddy politics in the Sunshine State

"Extremely disappointed" ... James Ashby leaves court.

"Extremely disappointed" ... James Ashby leaves court. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The sexual harassment case that brought ''shell-less mussels'' into Australia's vernacular and brought down a Speaker of Parliament began at a sprawling strawberry farm on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

In 2011, James Ashby – a good-looking and clean-cut young man who, the Federal Court observed on Wednesday, was sensitive about his weight – was working as a marketing manager at Gowinta Farms.

Peter Slipper ... cleared of wrongdoing.

Peter Slipper ... cleared of wrongdoing. Photo: Gary Ramage

It was the same farm that was sensationally the target of a poison attack in May the same year, with poison discovered in a water tank less than a week before the first crop.

Fairfax Media does not suggest Mr Ashby was in any way involved. What is clear, however, is the farm has generated Mr Ashby more than his 15 minutes of fame.

Mr Ashby met and befriended Valerie Bradford, a long-time member of the Nationals and LNP at the farm, former Howard Government minister Mal Brough later said.

Mal Brough ... has since won preselection for the seat of Fisher.

Mal Brough ... has since won preselection for the seat of Fisher. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

Mr Brough - who would come to play a starring role in Mr Ashby's life – said Ms Bradford convinced Mr Ashby to join the LNP.

In December 2011, Mr Ashby joined the office of Peter Slipper. He quickly secured for himself a reputation among Queensland’s media for impestuously throwing a journalist’s mobile phone into bushes after the journalist asked pointy questions about Mr Slipper’s expenses.

But Mr Ashby’s task was not without problems. Mr Slipper was a flamboyant politician loathed by many in the Queensland LNP after he defected to become Speaker in Labor’s minority parliament.

The homepage of the Gowinta Farms website.

The homepage of the Gowinta Farms website.

Mr Slipper’s move was understandable; he was thought at the time highly unlikely to win preselection for the federal seat of Fisher against Mr Brough, who has since won preselection for the seat.

But, as Federal Court Judge Steven Rares observed on Wednesday, Queensland politics is an intricate affair.

Mr Brough later claimed Ms Bradford advised Mr Ashby to seek his advice on  some workplace issues he claimed he had been having.

Those issues, Mr Ashby would claim, were that he had been repeatedly sexually harassed by Mr Slipper after joining his office.

Mr Brough later admitted he had counselled Mr Ashby on his claims Mr Slipper was sexually harassing him, and advised Mr Ashby to get a lawyer over the claims. However, he denied Mr Ashby had set a honeytrap for political purposes.

On Wednesday, Justice Steven Rares poured scorn on this claim, saying Mr Ashby’s motivations for bringing the case were "for the predominant purpose of causing political damage to Mr Slipper".

Justice Rares also said Mr Brough had acted "in combination with" Mr Ashby and fellow Slipper employee Karen Doane "in order to advance the interests of the LNP and Mr Brough".

"At this time, Mr Ashby and Ms Doane saw Mr Brough as their means of obtaining favour from the LNP in seeking new employment," Justice Rares said.

"They believed that new job opportunities would open up to them after the LNP won government in Queensland on the weekend of 24-25 March 2012. If Mr Ashby could discredit Mr Slipper politically by helping Mr Brough ... he perceived that would gain favour for him and Ms Doane in the eyes of the LNP."

Outside court, Mr Ashby read from a prepared statement, and described himself as "extremely disappointed".

"There has been a determined campaign to try and [sic] prevent the substantive allegations being heard and judged in open court, and to put me to the maximum cost in pursuing justice. With my lawyers, we will study the judgment in detail, but at this stage, we intend to appeal this regrettable decision."

There was no word from Mr Ashby’s camp about what, if anything, he intended to do with the $50,000 the Commonwealth paid him in settlement in October.

But it seems clear it will come in handy.

Mr Ashby was ordered to pay Mr Slipper’s costs for the eight-month Federal Court hearing, an amount expected to be substantial. And he could have an appeal to fund, too. Mr Ashby's spokesman said the legal team planned to file an appeal within 14 days and hopes to have it heard early next year.

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