THE Coalition is demanding the federal government shield taxpayers from costs associated with the Slipper affair by ruling out paying Peter Slipper's legal fees and seeking from him a guarantee he pay back any damages awarded against the Commonwealth.
The shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, wrote to his counterpart, Nicola Roxon, yesterday afternoon demanding the Commonwealth approach the lawsuit in a way that protects the interests of the taxpayer.
Ms Roxon has said it was ''very unlikely'' the Commonwealth would pay Mr Slipper's legal costs but Mr Brandis asked her to categorically rule this out.
Counting the costs ... Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has said it was "very unlikely" the government would pay Peter Slipper's legal costs. Photo: Andrew Meares
In his civil lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, 33-year-old James Hunter Ashby has made claims against Mr Slipper and the Commonwealth.
Mr Brandis says the government should stipulate upfront that Mr Slipper pledge to repay any damages Mr Ashby might win against the Commonwealth.
The demands came as the government sought to capitalise on unsubstantiated rumours that Liberal Party activists had prior knowledge of the claims against Mr Slipper.
Asked about the claims yesterday, the Coalition leader, Tony Abbott, said: ''No one that I am aware of had any specific knowledge of this prior to reading the newspapers on Saturday morning.
''I think there are something like 100,000 members of the Liberal and National parties right around Australia. Can I guarantee that no one had any role, anywhere, in anything?''
The Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said Mr Abbott's answer was ''slippery''. But asked if he had any evidence of a link, Mr Swan said: ''All I'd say is, if you're as quick with the mud bucket as Mr Abbott is, you'd better be pretty clean yourself.''
Mr Swan claimed the federal budget would not be affected by the fact that Mr Slipper has stood aside during an investigation into allegations of fraud, concerning misuse of Cabcharge entitlements.
But the Tasmanian independent MP, Andrew Wilkie, confirmed yesterday he did not think Mr Slipper should resume the Speaker's chair until the civil sexual harassment case was also heard. Two other independents, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, have not yet made a decision on this point.
The government believes the Cabcharge allegations can be dealt with quickly but the civil matter will take months. If Mr Slipper was still stood aside when Parliament resumes for the budget and therefore unable to vote, the government's majority would again be reduced to one - meaning Mr Wilkie's bargaining position would be greatly strengthened.
Mr Slipper's disaffected former staff have reportedly formed a group called Survivors of Peter Slipper, or SOS, and, as happens in all political parties, several former staff have gone on to work for other state, federal and local Liberal politicians. But staff contacted by the Herald yesterday did not know Mr Ashby. Several said Mr Slipper had been meticulous about making sure his claims were within entitlement guidelines.
Mr Slipper denies all the allegations. Ms Roxon said Senator Brandis's thoughts were noted but, from opposition, he has ''no role to play in Commonwealth litigation''.
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