Under fire ... Christopher Pyne. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
GOVERNMENT demands that the opposition come clean on a meeting between Christopher Pyne and Peter Slipper's former staffer James Hunter Ashby will intensify today following revelations Mr Pyne requested Mr Ashby's contact details following a late-night drinking session in March.
Despite Mr Pyne claiming yesterday he could not remember asking for Mr Ashby's details after the meeting - which occurred a month before Mr Ashby lodged legal action against Mr Slipper - the Herald has been shown an email and a text message sent by Mr Pyne requesting the details minutes after the session ended. Contact details for Mr Ashby were immediately provided.
With Julia Gillard's leadership under strain over the Slipper affair and MPs such as the chief government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon, losing faith in her, the government seized on the initial report about Mr Pyne and Mr Ashby.
The Herald website reported that Mr Pyne, the opposition's chief strategist, spent almost two hours drinking and chatting with Mr Ashby on the night of March 19 in Mr Slipper's office, while Mr Slipper was in the chamber.
Mr Pyne, who on Sunday said his previous contact with Mr Ashby had been ''brief'', confirmed the drinks occurred, but said ''I don't remember ever having asked for Mr Ashby's number''.
Mr Pyne said Mr Ashby did not raise with him the allegations that were subsequently levelled at Mr Slipper and he had never telephoned Mr Ashby.
In a rare public statement, Mr Ashby said: ''I have nothing to say regarding Mr Pyne's comments''.
The Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said neither Mr Pyne nor Tony Abbott had adequately answered what, if any, contact the Coalition had with Mr Ashby about the Federal Court claim before it was lodged.
Any evidence the Coalition had played a role would be explosive and turn the issue back on the opposition.
''I think when you've listened to Mr Abbott's slippery answers about these questions, he has not answered the question of whether he had any knowledge of the Ashby claim,'' Mr Swan said.
''Mr Pyne has many questions to answer. Is he prepared to provide his phone records and make those public if he hasn't phoned Mr Ashby?''
Mr Swan said the same standards the opposition applied to Mr Slipper cut both ways. ''Let's see some consistency from
them. They've had plenty to say about this. Let's see them answer a few of these questions.''
Ms Gillard kept a low profile yesterday as she prepared for next week's budget, the response to which could make or break her leadership.
Following another disastrous Newspoll, which had Labor's primary vote at 27 per cent compared with the Coalition's 51 per cent, rattled MPs said it would be preferable if Ms Gillard stood aside to minimise any further harm a leadership challenge would cause.
Should there be a change, Kevin Rudd remains the likely replacement with Bill Shorten as deputy. But some are advocating Simon Crean as leader, because he would take the attack to Mr Abbott.
One MP said the concern was no longer about winning the next election but preventing the destruction of the Labor brand.
''We need to restore values, trust and integrity,'' he said.