Peter Slipper

Peter Slipper ... resigned as speaker of the house. Photo: Andrew Meares

Test: how long does it take to deduce whether the following text messages are sexual and in poor taste?

''Did you lose your maidenhood again?''

Roxon also said something that was untrue: ''We aren't bringing a strike-out application; Mr Slipper is.''  

''Your virtual hymen.''

''We say a person is a c**t when many guys like c**ts!''

''They look like a mussel removed from its shell. Look at a bottle of mussel meat!''

It takes about eight seconds to read these messages. Confronted with dozens of similar messages it would have taken less than a minute to realise that the former speaker of the house, Peter Slipper, sent numerous lurid, unsolicited sexual messages to a staff member. Which means the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, has a problem.

On Tuesday night, it emerged during a Senate estimates hearing that the Attorney-General was briefed on June 9 about the hundreds of dubious or distasteful text messages sent by Slipper to his staffer James Ashby.

Four days later, on June 13, Roxon instructed the Solicitor-General to seek to have Ashby's case struck out. She also gave instructions to seek a waiver for the government to be allowed to use the texts to have Ashby sacked.

Also on June 13, in a further attempt to shut down the case, the government offered to pay damages to Ashby to settle his sexual harassment claim.

Two days later, despite her knowledge of the scale and nature of the texts sent by Slipper, the Attorney-General held a press conference and said this: ''The Commonwealth strongly believes that this process has been one which is really for an ulterior purpose … the Commonwealth has obtained a vast amount of material … It will be clearly shown … that there were in fact clear intentions to harm Mr Slipper and to bring his reputation into disrepute and to assist his political opponents and that was the purpose for the bringing of this claim.''

The political mischief in this case has never been in doubt. What was misleading about the Attorney-General's statement was that the ''vast amount of material'' was not merely vexatious. It buttressed a sexual harassment claim. It was also political dynamite.

Roxon also said something that was untrue: ''We aren't bringing a strike-out application; Mr Slipper is.''

The shadow attorney-general, Senator George Brandis, told me yesterday: ''These texts, on any view, contain dozens of instances of predatory sexual conduct. So the Attorney-General's claim that this was merely a vexatious case was extraordinary. Any person who read the texts would know instantly that Ashby had a case.

''Yet she gave instructions to strike Ashby's case out. She gave a press conference in which she described the action as vexatious. It meant that everything she has subsequently said about Alan Jones and Tony Abbott being misogynists was said with the full knowledge that the government was protecting a real misogynist, Peter Slipper.''

It also emerged during the estimates hearing that the government deployed 17 solicitors and two barristers on this case, which explains why it cost the government $730,000, plus $50,000 in damages paid to Ashby in damages.

''Even a major case involving the Commonwealth would normally only require three or four government solicitors,'' Brandis said. ''So the resources used here were extraordinary.''

The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Eric Abetz, was even blunter. He told me: ''The government was willing to spend three quarters of a million dollars of taxpayers' money to try to cover this up. I've never seen the first law officer of the land behave in such a partisan way. She has a lot to answer for and a lot to explain.''

During question time last Thursday, Julie Bishop asked the Attorney-General: ''When did the Attorney-General or her office first become aware of the content of the offensive SMS messages?'' Roxon declined to answer: ''I am really not able to go into each stage of the legal advice that we have been provided with at different times. It is before the court.''

Bishop then asked: ''How can the Attorney-General refute the obvious conclusion that the government settled the case with Mr Ashby in order to suppress the public release of the offensive SMS messages?''

Roxon: ''Clearly, if that was the intention, it did not work. The one reason you can be sure that it was not the intention is that it did not work … I do not think it is appropriate for us to speculate about what might happen in that matter that is still ongoing.''

The speculation is over. The Attorney-General finds herself on a slippery slope.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_

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