Embroiled in the Slipper affair ... Mal Brough. Photo: Glenn Hunt
Suddenly, the Coalition has discovered the sanctity of process. It was two Saturdays ago when news broke that Peter Slipper had been accused by a staff member, James Hunter Ashby, of the criminal rorting of Cabcharges and that Ashby had also lodged civil action in the Federal Court alleging sexual harassment.
Slipper was sidelined as the Speaker pending the resolution or otherwise of the criminal allegations, while the government argued there was no precedent for having to stand aside when subject to civil action.
In other words, if Slipper were cleared of the Cabcharge misuse, he should be able to return to the chair while the civil claims were outstanding.
Julia Gillard argued there was ''a clear set of precedents where people have continued to function in their office while the subject of civil matters''.
Politics and proper process are odd bedfellows and Gillard's case failed the front bar test.
A week later she was forced into the humiliating backdown in which she spoke of nebulous lines being crossed and dark clouds over Parliament as she agreed Slipper should be sidelined until both sets of allegations were resolved.
Nobody in the Coalition or anywhere else was arguing for precedent or process to be upheld.
Until yesterday, after the Slipper affair embroiled the former Howard government minister Mal Brough, threatened his planned political comeback, and raised legitimate questions about who else knew what.
''Frankly when there is an allegation of sexual harassment it should be left to the courts without all of this speculation around it and any attempts to intimidate the staffer around it,'' the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, said.
At least Hockey stuck his head up. In what must be a world first, neither Tony Abbott nor any of his frontbenchers did anything public on Saturday, when the details of Brough's role emerged.
Abbott had spent the week fending off questions about what he meant when he said he had no ''specific knowledge'' of the allegations before they were made public. And after it was revealed by the Herald's Jessica Wright that Christopher Pyne's contact with Ashby a month before the allegations were made went well beyond the casual ''hello'' Pyne originally purported it to be. Pyne shifted his story incrementally all last week.
As for Brough, a week ago he described as ''nonsense'' a suggestion he had known about Ashby's legal action before it was launched.
Then, on Friday when reporters starting hearing the opposite from Liberal National Party sources, Brough changed his tune.
He refused to return calls from the Herald and other papers - in two known cases he just hung up - and instead opted for a tell-all interview with The Australian, complete with a front page picture of himself at home with his wife, Sue.
As one Coalition MP said yesterday: ''A sure sign you're in the shit.''
Brough argued that Ashby was troubled and had come to him for advice and Brough advised him to go the police and get a lawyer.
Brough was in no position to play this role.
He lost his Sunshine Coast seat of Longman at the 2007 election. Afterwards, he fell out with the party because he opposed the merger of the Liberal and National parties in Queensland.
After a rapprochement, he decided to knock off Slipper for preselection and take his seat of Fisher. It was this move, which had the imprimatur of the party hierarchy, that made Slipper's decision to rat on the LNP and take the Speaker's job much easier.
Brough has not yet won the preselection, but is the favourite because the branches have been stacked.
So, prima facie, you have somebody who was to be running against Slipper at the next election, meeting in secret with Slipper's staffer and advising him on legal action against his boss.
If you accept Brough's claim that he was helping a distressed individual, it still should have occurred to him how this would look if it ever got out.
Meeting Ashby once was OK but after that, Brough should have referred him immediately to somebody who had no interest in seeing Slipper harmed politically, regardless of whether he felt Ashby's grievances were genuine.
Instead he met him two more times.
Inside the Coalition, where Brough is not that popular, there is broad agreement on this.
The sexual harassment claims are serious - for both Slipper and Ashby - and their veracity should be determined by the court.
But it is little wonder an embattled Labor, itself subject to innuendo and disregard for process for so many months now, did not need to be asked twice to go after this one. Especially if as rumoured there is more to come regarding the meetings with Brough.
For the Coalition, a pattern of concealment is not a strong platform from which to launch an attack on the government when Parliament resumes tomorrow.
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