Mal Brough. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
SENIOR Liberals have rallied behind former minister Mal Brough, in the face of Labor calls for him to be disendorsed after being found to have been part of a plot against former Speaker Peter Slipper.
The government talked up the affair as a high conspiracy, invoking Watergate. While it continued to threaten the possibility of an inquiry into the Coalition's role in the affair, government sources refused to be drawn on the likelihood.
Judge Steven Rares on Wednesday dismissed as an abuse of legal process the sexual harassment case brought against Mr Slipper by his then staffer James Ashby, finding Mr Ashby, another staffer and Mr Brough had acted to pursue a political attack against Mr Slipper and advance the interests of Mr Brough and the Liberal National Party.
As Labor attacked the Coalition, claiming senior figures had prior knowledge of the Ashby suit, Tony Abbott's office rejected suggestions it had drafted a press release the night before the story broke that Mr Ashby was launching legal action.
The coding of the press release indicated it was created just after 11 pm on Friday, April 20, with the story in News Ltd papers on Saturday, April 21. But an Abbott spokesman insisted the press release had been prepared the next morning, putting the timing reference down to an IT glitch and inviting journalists to the office to inspect the file.
Earlier this year opposition whip Warren Entsch confirmed he had tried to ring Mr Abbott on the Friday night to tell him a big story about the Speaker was coming, but Mr Abbott's phone had gone to message bank.
Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said Mr Brough ''should get on a plane, go to Canberra, face the full press gallery for as long as they have questions''.
Trade Minister Craig Emerson branded Mr Brough a liar, saying he had initially denied being aware of the preparations of the claim by Mr Ashby. Dr Emerson said Tony Abbott should be moving to disendorse Mr Brough. But shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said Mr Brough was ''absolutely'' in the clear and would be the candidate in Mr Slipper's seat of Fisher.
Shadow attorney-general George Brandis said there had been ''no findings against Mr Brough himself''. ''There is no conduct about which the judge made findings which, in my view, would disqualify Mr Brough from being a parliamentary candidate.''
Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce - who backed another candidate in the preselection that installed Mr Brough - was more equivocal about him. ''My views are irrelevant because the selection process remains firmly in the remit of the local branch members. I am not a local branch member and they would be upset if I started making comments about what is not my right but theirs.''
Foreign Minister Bob Carr said this had been a conspiracy. ''It has been a set-up and, as the judge found, it was all directed at changing the government of Australia.'' ''
Parliamentary secretary Mike Kelly claimed the affair ''has all the hallmarks of an Australian Watergate'', saying the Coalition needed to be ''held to account for this conspiracy''.