Federal Politics

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Under the radar

In almost three decades in public office, his career has been marked by scandal and political enmity, yet the real Peter Slipper is elusive.

Keith Atkinson has lived next door to Peter Slipper for five years, and spoken with him once. His tale is no big deal but it is illustrative of how Slipper generates more loathing than mum's boiled tripe. It might also alert a wiser politician to the payback pitfalls of arrogance, greed and contempt.

About five months ago, Atkinson wanted Slipper to remove tree limbs overhanging the Atkinson home at Buderim, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. Atkinson says he spotted the man who soon would rock Australian politics by ratting on the Coalition, and sought his co-operation.

''He just said 'you can chop them down' and … I said 'I'll have to pay for that', and he said, 'that's correct', and then he walked away.''

A neighbourhood dispute, to be sure. But it left Atkinson stewing to the point where he happily shares observations reinforcing the public perception that bizarre behaviour of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the custodian of parliamentary propriety, may be to the letter of the rules but certainly not to their spirit.

Asked what he has seen of limousines arriving at the Slipper home, Atkinson says Slipper assumed the air of ''frickin' royalty''.

''Dozens and dozens of times, the guy [driving the limo] gets out and knocks on the door, and then he could be waiting for hours.''


Such extravagance might help explain Slipper's large claims against the public coffer for everything from overseas travel to telephones and taxi and limousine use. Escalation of some of his spending habits to allegations of criminal wrongdoing forced Slipper last Sunday to stand aside. He says evidence now clears him of a ''complete fabrication'' and that court claims he sexually harassed a gay male staffer, James Ashby, are ''not accurate''.

Desperate to cling to the numerical advantage of an extra vote in Parliament, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, wants Slipper back promptly in the $245,000 job but runs the risk of a revolt if most MPs refused to accept him. Thus, the plans of mice and men.

It took one act too far of Slipper treachery to lift the lid on nearly three decades of smut, suspicion, innuendo and raised eyebrows.

For all the finger-pointing, for the avalanche of evidence and allegation stretching back years and pointing to Slipper's unfitness, two pivotal questions went unanswered.

How was he tolerated for so long by conservative parties - given local disquiet, agitation for his replacement and hand-wringing at the highest level - and what was the Gillard government thinking last December when it recruited to the speakership a man whose reputation was so sullied across politics?

Ridiculed and written off as a rat, a rorter, a boozer and a bore, whose moral compass cracked under the strain of public expectation, thwarted ambition and human foible, Slipper nonetheless enjoyed preselection support of the Nationals (albeit in quieter days) and later the Liberals at nine federal elections.

Nearly all who worked with Slipper say the same thing. His expertise at law and his close study of the rules of entitlement wised him up. ''He pushes the envelope but he seemed to know when to stop short of illegality,'' one said.

And if alcohol is grounds for exclusion, we'd need a big broom through parliamentary ranks, even in these more abstemious days. Was Slipper's personal behaviour sometimes bizarre? It seems so but, again, was it offensive to some public taste without being unlawful?

A 2003 incident is instructive.

Slipper was alleged to have been filmed entering a staffer's bedroom, lying on a bed cuddling a staffer and also appearing to urinate out the window, according to allegations in a claim filed recently by Ashby in the Federal Court.

The Herald has learned the matter came to the attention of Tony Nutt, then a senior Howard aide, who demanded an explanation. He was told any interaction between Slipper and the staffer was consensual and that the video revealed no illegality. The video was understood to have been destroyed and the Howard office decided it could not act.

Now to the question of how the Gillard government could bank so much on a man known across politics as Slippery Pete, whose idiosyncrasies, blind spots and alleged disregard for parliamentary standards were evident to anyone within earshot of Parliament House, even if he was barely known to Australians outside his Sunshine Coast electorate of Fisher. Yes, the minority government believed it was securing an insurance policy against the Hobart independent, Andrew Wilkie, whose allegiance was torched when Julia Gillard turned her back on his timetable for poker machine reform.

But it was a political ''masterstroke'' paid for in pieces of silver. In getting Slipper to abandon the Coalition in return for the perks and prestige of the Speaker's office - a sort of last drinks hurrah before a former Howard minister, Mal Brough, replaces him in Fisher - the government chose a dance partner with two left feet. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and it happened last week when Ashby claimed Slipper rorted travel entitlements and filed the Federal Court writ alleging Slipper sexually harassed him.

The allegations are titillating for their prurience and the encirclement of a bit player MP thrust to centre stage, even with the entitlement of presumed innocence. They are profound because they threaten survival of a government drowning in its own ham-fistedness.

For all the spotlight on Peter Neil Slipper, precious little is available on the public record about him before he arrived on the national political stage in 1984, albeit in a chorus line role only.

We know he was born at Ipswich, near Brisbane, 62 years ago, that he matriculated from the privileged Ipswich Grammar School and graduated in law from the University of Queensland.

We know he was ordained a priest in the Catholic-leaning Traditional Anglican Communion church, a breakaway from mainstream Anglicanism and critic of the ordination of women and tolerance of homosexuality in the priesthood. His politics have always reflected attitudes from an earlier time - God, queen and country. Reportedly, he once campaigned against decimalisation on the grounds that the introduction of the dollar was an anti-monarchist conspiracy.

But the sort of background information, the sort of family and other early influences often alluded to in inaugural parliamentary speeches and on official websites, are mostly absent from the Slipper record.

Slipper has gone to ground, apart from a Twitter frenzy, but scandal is helping unearth the jigsaw pieces.

What emerges is support for views expressed this week by John Hepworth, the primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, that, like most people, Slipper is more than one-dimensional.

Hepworth, raped by Catholic priests over several years of training for that denomination's priesthood, told ABC Radio that Slipper ''is a complex character''. ''There are a number of Peter Slippers. There's the very devoted husband to Inge and she is a strong defender of Peter. I've also seen Peter drink too much. I've spoken with him about this. I've seen the arrogance that comes about when that happens.

''So I've seen the complexity of Peter Slipper and what we're seeing at the present time is one of those sides, although he, let it be said, denies the moral and sexual wrongdoing in the harassment case and also denies the the [taxi-use] criminal matter.''

Hepworth won agreement from what might be considered an unexpected source, given the opposition's hay-making and the antipathy widespread in the Nationals towards Slipper jumping ship to the Liberals for his 1993 return to Parliament, after Labor held the Fisher seat for two terms.

Barnaby Joyce, a Queensland senator, took his swipe at the government but pulled punches on the ''deserter'' Slipper, whose success at winning party endorsements and elections was evidence that he wasn't all bad. ''He's not an evil person but a person - and each one of us has this potential - vulnerable to wild oscillations in views and actions, particularly when alcohol leads to loss of control.'' This was a case, Joyce said, of ''there but for the grace of God''.

The government, of course, was in a different league. ''Everyone knew Slipper had these devils,'' Joyce said. ''Why make him Speaker? We were quietly trying to ease the wheelie bin to the kerbside under cover of darkness and what does Julia Gillard do? She sneaks out, retrieves the wheelie bin, takes it to the middle of her kitchen and expects everyone to applaud how clever she's been.''

You could pave the streets of the Sunshine Coast with resentment, such is the vicious loathing of Slipper among local conservatives. Local council candidate Rhys Reynolds, however, thinks it overdone. He introduced Ashby to Slipper at a cocktail party at the Slipper home and says the media focus on Slipper is ''completely wrong''. ''I think Peter would admit he's made some mistakes over the years, but that's really all.''

A few hours' drive south, Ipswich is Queensland's oldest provincial city, built on coal mining but housing Queensland's railway workshops when Stan and Joan Slipper returned in 1966. Stan had been promoted to senior management after a stint at Townsville.

Peter and his younger brothers, Kerry and Robin, were enrolled at Ipswich Grammar, the state's oldest boarding school. Peter excelled at debating and Kerry on the sporting fields. Robin would follow Peter in the study of law.

One report holds that attorney Peter returned to Ipswich from country practice and established a law firm under the family home, taking on Brett Smith in what would become Slipper Smith. At 26, Slipper ran the Ipswich campaign to unseat the future Labor leader Bill Hayden in 1975, but Hayden was Labor's only victorious candidate in Queensland.

According to a farmer, Bruce Page, who managed Slipper's first and successful tilt at the national Parliament, Slipper used this time to establish in Ipswich - a town with long Labor sympathies - its first branch of the forerunner of the Young Nationals, an organisation as much dedicated to socialising as it was to politics.

At both pursuits, Slipper was in his element. Pin-striped suits distinguished him from the moleskins and tweed sportscoats of farmer sons. He cultivated patronage, became state president of the Young Nationals and, in the early 1980s, attached himself to National Party pedigree by marrying Lyn Hooper, the daughter of a state cabinet minister. They split in 2001, and he later married Inge Hall, of another prominent National Party family.

But, according to Page, Slipper's diligence and public speaking, not family ties, propelled him over rivals, including then local businessman Clive Palmer. Slipper narrowly deprived the future mining billionaire of preselection for the 1984 election after Slipper shifted to the booming Sunshine Coast in search of political opportunity, and found himself championing the Joh for PM campaign. Asked yesterday how he felt about losing the 21-candidate contest, Palmer said: ''I'm very happy.''

''Peter was well accepted in the country,'' Page said this week. ''Even in 1993 [when Slipper stood as a Liberal] he outpolled the Nationals candidate in rural areas.''

But his appeal was not universal or enduring. Tom McVeigh, a Fraser government minister, recalls Slipper ''lacking in a bit of confidence'' and forever pestering McVeigh to critique his speeches. ''I finally said to him one day, 'Look, Peter, don't come near me in Parliament. You say what you mean and mean what you say and it's irrelevant what I think about it.' ''

McVeigh concedes his surprise when, a few years later, Slipper contested preselection for McVeigh's now vacated Darling Downs seat of Groom. ''That showed a lack of judgment. You can give him credit for keenness. But he was foolish to personally contest the plebiscite and he didn't get past the first round.''

What Slipper lacked in early confidence, he made up for in boundless ambition. He imagined himself wielding influence through a cross-party alliance of new MPs but it went nowhere. Sources say that as opportunity was denied him, he became occasionally despondent and increasingly reliant on alcohol as a crutch.

The consequences were sometimes disastrous for his public standing. On one occasion, he arrived intoxicated at a Sunday meeting in Canberra of Liberal and Nationals MPs, and proceeded to tear strips off the then opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull. On another, he provoked the ire of a yahoo in a late-night Canberra bar by lighting a cigarette, was roughly manhandled and then pleaded - unsuccessfully - with journalists who witnessed the brouhaha not to report it. He conceded a degree of intrepidation about what John Howard would make of it all.

Slipper also took to courting both sides of political stand-offs, pursuing the patronage of both Howard - whose first tilt at the prime ministership was derailed by the Slipper-backed Joh for PM push - and the then treasurer Peter Costello. He seemed not to understand the risk that trying to be all things to both men most often results in being nothing to either.