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Opposition Slipper story slips

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Michelle Grattan

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PT0M0S 620 349

A STAFFER of Speaker Peter Slipper twice contacted the office of Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop claiming he had been harassed in his workplace before public allegations were made against the Speaker.

As the government seeks to probe what information the opposition had before Mr Slipper's staffer, James Ashby, made his allegations of the Speaker's sexual harassment and misuse of Cabcharges, Ms Bishop told The Age last night the contacts were in late March and early April.

The male staffer had said someone in the Queensland Liberal National Party had advised him to get in touch with Ms Bishop's office.

Deputy leader of the opposition Julie Bishop.

Deputy leader of the opposition Julie Bishop. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

She said the staffer, who had not specified sexual harassment, had been told by her staff to contact the Finance Department, which handled staff employment. Her office informed her about the matter after the second contact, but she was not told the man's name and did not know whether her office knew it. As far as she was concerned ''that was the end of it.'' After Mr Ashby's claims were reported in the media, she spoke to Tony Abbott's office about the contact.

Opposition Whip Warren Entsch tried to ring Mr Abbott the night before Mr Ashby's allegations were published to tell him that a big story about the Speaker was coming. But Mr Abbott's phone went to message bank, Mr Entsch said.

These details emerged as the Nationals leader in the Senate, Barnaby Joyce, hit out at Mr Ashby, saying ''he seems only slightly less dodgy than Slipper''.

Senator Joyce said the question was what Mr Ashby was doing at Mr Slipper's house - where some of the inappropriate conversation was alleged to have taken place. ''He wasn't dragged into the house,'' Senator Joyce said, adding that Mr Ashby was ''not a boy in his teens but a man in his 30s''.

Mr Entsch said he heard late on the Friday evening about a story to be published on April 21, and rang the journalist, News Ltd's Steve Lewis. ''He confirmed something was happening,'' Mr Entsch said. But he was ''very tight lipped''.

Mr Entsch said he did not know the details but did know it was ''very serious'' and, in his job as whip he had thought it was important Mr Abbott be told. He said he did not try to ring the manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne.

Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said Mr Ashby was being treated as a political football - and suggested the same fate would not have befallen a female making claims against a man.

The opposition has been embarrassed by revelations that - contrary to the impression it had been giving of the allegations coming as a surprise - Mal Brough, the leading Liberal contender for Mr Slipper's seat, had met Mr Ashby three times before he made his allegations and counselled him about his situation.

Mr Hockey said he was appalled at comments from Foreign Minister Bob Carr seeking to discredit someone complaining of sexual harassment. Senator Carr posted on Twitter: ''This Ashby seems more rehearsed than a Kabuki actor.''

with KATHARINE MURPHY

twitter Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU


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