Federal Politics

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The texting finger points to the exit

THE Parliament is still digesting it and historians will make a meal of it. A lot of Australians already want to forget it: a Speaker standing enrobed, weeping, broken; tossing away the final feeble grasp on his throne. Few enough now believe Peter Slipper was a proper choice for the Speakership in the first place. But how did it get to this?

Blame the voters who couldn't make up their minds between Julia Gillard's Labor and Tony Abbott's Coalition at the last election.

Blame, if you want to make the leap, Julia Gillard's negotiating skills in persuading independents to grant her the government benches by a plastic margin, though one that has - against many early predictions - held her in power.

Blame, along with Slipper himself, the hung Parliament.

It is a high-wire balancing act. Focus narrows to the wire.

Casualties are all but inevitable, although this one is more bizarre than most.


Desperate for an extra toe grasp on the wire, Gillard and her colleagues 11 months ago lost wider judgment.

They chose Peter Slipper as their preferred Speaker, refusing the opposition's nominations of a whole bunch of Labor MPs. Slipper was a much-unloved member of the Liberal National Party of Queensland facing loss of preselection, a man displaying naked ambition for enrobement, and Labor's brains trust was so swept away by short-focus strategy, it ignored the counterbalancing history of travel allowance infractions and the book-length stories of colourful late-night behaviour.

Up there in the Speaker's chair, Peter Slipper would rob Tony Abbott's opposition of a vote.

Brilliant: the rawest of raw hung-Parliament politics.

It would turn out to be madness.

Everyone in Labor with a memory knew, or should have known, about politicians so ambitious they would rat on their own.

Queensland ALP Senator Mal Colston did it years ago when he became an independent and took the deputy president's chair in the Senate, a sly gift from John Howard in return for a vote on the part-sale of Telstra.

Colston's old Labor colleagues turned on him like a pack of bush dogs. All his carefully concealed sins of avarice and sick love of travel were dug out of Labor's own dirt files and turned out for all to see.

Within a year Colston was charged with 28 counts of defrauding the Commonwealth. He pleaded cancer, persuaded the courts he might not live long enough to face judgment and was finally allowed to limp away.

Did Gillard's Labor Party imagine that the Coalition was too genteel to turn on Slipper, its own rat, like bush dogs?

If so, they were mistaken.

Stories of Slipper's use of travel allowances were circulated and rumours made the rounds and found their way into print about a video said to involve Slipper and a young man.

And then came Slipper's staffer James Ashby, marching off to court bearing allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of Cabcharge vouchers - having first consulted the man who wanted (and got) Slipper's pre-selection, the former Howard government minister, Mal Brough. It has yet to be explained why a legal firm decided Ashby should receive legal representation for $1. Slipper cried conspiracy.

And then came growing knowledge of the little mountain of text messages; a dormant volcano spewing to life when they were revealed a week ago in all their frightfulness.

In the end, it took two of those independents who help the government to survive, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, to explain to the Speaker that his time as a casualty had arrived.

While the government in the House of Representatives on Tuesday was arguing against the opposition's demand that Slipper be sacked and Julia Gillard, unable to find a way to defend the Speaker she had engineered, was instead giving Tony Abbott what-for over his behaviour towards women, Windsor and Oakeshott took themselves off, separately, to Slipper's office.

Their message was succinct. They didn't know how the argument in the House might play out, but it didn't matter. Slipper had to go to his chair one last time, explain himself … and shove off of his own accord.

Windsor and Oakeshott voted with the government to grant Slipper his reprieve from the actual sack - something that would have been unprecedented, and which could hardly be seen as anything but withdrawal of due process considering he hadn't been convicted by any court. But their intervention in his office meant it was all over bar the weeping.

The Greens put the sealer on it. After the debate, in which the Greens' Adam Bandt also voted with the government to prevent Slipper being sacked, Greens leader Christine Milne met Gillard in her office and told her that Slipper's continuing role was untenable.

The government, in short, was facing a revolt by its most crucial independent allies and the Greens if Slipper stayed on. It would be a crisis. It couldn't be allowed.

And so, Slipper got his final moment to stand in his robes and resign. And then he was gone.

Peter Slipper, history will show, served for hardly any time at all in the Speaker's chair.

He was dragged, as is the strange tradition, to the throne on November 24, the last day of Parliament last year, ruled the House of Representatives for precisely 19 sitting days and was gone in April. Only on leave, mind, until he dealt with the courts, meanwhile retaining his generous salary and splendid suite in Parliament House, entitled to mix as an honoured guest in the diplomatic circuit and to fly across oceans.

The marvel of it was that during his brief period in the chair, he turned out to be an innovative and worthy Speaker, if a touch ostentatious - oh, glory, the winged collars, the white silk bow tie. He introduced time limits for questions and answers and tried to keep his unruly House in a modicum of order, sitting the Prime Minister down on one memorable occasion.

But his texting finger had been too busy. Hundreds of text messages between him and Ashby sat for months within court documents like a smouldering pile of manure.

When their full extent was finally revealed in all their inglory a week ago, even the desperate requirements of a government dealing with a hung Parliament couldn't save him, and his fellow independents and a Green wouldn't.

Tony Wright is national affairs editor. Twitter: @tonyowright