Bullock and the ghosts of turncoats past. Weekly column for The Drum.
You might recall I said in my rant about the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign that:
“there is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme.”
Many comments followed the post, here and on Twitter, and there has been a genuine attempt to identify ways to address the latter points.
While we might disagree on some things, Margo Kingston and I do agree that the Federal Court’s judgement raises matters for which Ashby and Brough must provide explanations. While the procurement and provision of Slipper’s diary might attract legal charges, it seems unlikely that any will arise from the abuse of court processes that was identified by Justice Rares.
Margo has already challenged the Sunshine Coast Daily to tackle Brough on his involvement with Ashby’s complaint.
But where is Ashby? Is his announced appeal against Rares’ findings actually a strategy to deflect media attention until some other political drama arises? Or is the media avoiding him anyway, in the same fashion they avoided anything other than scant coverage of the Federal Court judgement?
I’ve said I’d support actions that have substance and deal with known rather than suspected protagonists. In response Margo suggested I join her in challenging journalists to find the elusive Mr Ashby and get some answers.
And so I have. Consider it the inaugural D&M Newshound Challenge.
There’s plenty that we need to know, and only one person who can tell us. Why did Ashby accept a job in December 2011 with Slipper when he was already uncomfortable with texts he’d received from the then Deputy Speaker as early as October? Why did he not use other avenues of complaint/redress rather than going straight to courts? Why turn to Brough after describing him in considerably negative terms to Slipper? Who’s paying his legal bills? And was he encouraged to turn against Slipper in January 2012 and for what incentive?
So that’s the challenge. Find Ashby and find some facts. We’d love to read, hear or watch reports from fourth and fifth estate journalists on their strategies and progress in meeting this challenge. Surely there’s someone among Australia’s many talented investigative journalists, professional and amateur, who can succeed.
I know your hearts are in the right place, honestly I do. I share your concern about 2013 ending with Tony Abbott installed as Australia’s 28th Prime Minister. I’m uneasy about Abbott’s ascendancy and what it could mean for equality, equal opportunity and protection of the disadvantaged in Australia.
I also share your concern about the state of Australia’s conventional media, which more often than not descends to lowest common denominator populism to attract eyeballs and earholes rather than serve the public good through objective reporting and unbiased analysis.
It’s because I share many of your concerns that I say you’re seriously mistaken if you think the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign will prevent Tony Abbott from becoming Prime Minister.
That IS the purpose of your campaign, isn’t it? It’s not really about Ashby and Brough colluding to entrap Slipper in a nasty pre-selection stoush for the seat of Fisher. We already know they did (and don’t need an inquiry to tell us) because it was exposed by the Rares judgement. Nor is your call for an inquiry really about the role that journalist Steve Lewis played, because Justice Rares found that Lewis was simply doing his job.
The #AshbyInquiryNow campaign is really about pinning the whole sordid mess on Tony Abbott – isn’t it? – in the hope that …. well, what do you hope to achieve?
- Maybe the inquiry would find Abbott favoured someone running against a sitting Liberal candidate? That’s not a sackable offence and has plenty of precedents.
- Perhaps it would show that Abbott had knowledge of Brough/Ashby’s plans to undermine Slipper in the preselection contest for Fisher? If irrefutable proof was produced this would certainly blunt Abbott’s capacity to accuse Gillard of complicity through prior knowledge in the AWU saga. It would be unlikely however to sway undecided voters not already turned off by Abbott’s other unsavoury characteristics such as wall-punching and anachronistic views of women.
- It’s likely you’re hoping an inquiry would find Abbott actively participated in the Brough/Ashby scheme. But why would he? Why would Abbott get personally involved in one of the 150 preselection battles that will have occurred before the 2013 election? Remember, Slipper was not Speaker when Ashby set his plan in motion and there was no inkling the current Speaker Harry Jenkins would retire from the position.
- Some campaigners also seem keen to prove Abbott was involved in treason/sedition. Firstly, see 3 above. Also, Ashby’s plan was to bring Slipper down for Brough, not to bring the Speaker and the government down for Abbott. The government was never at risk, having gained a spare vote when Harry Jenkins stepped down from the chair. So there was no act of treason or sedition.
Now perhaps I have misunderstood your campaign, and you’re calling instead for an inquiry into the parlous state of Australia’s conventional media. Well we already had one of those and you’re unlikely to get another media inquiry soon or a different outcome.
In short, you can call for an #AshbyInquiryNow until you’re blue in the face but there’s nothing to be achieved by it. The Government would have already established one if they saw it as a way to get at Abbott.
Instead, the Government may be pondering whether charges can be laid against Brough/Ashby for the “abuse of process of the court” identified by Justice Rares. This may be the most effective way to get justice for Peter Slipper.
There is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme. That’s not to mention the shameful way in which News Ltd media dropped the story once it diverged from their political narrative.
Nevertheless, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign does nothing to address those wrongs. It is nothing more than an empty campaign, a hysterical witch hunt, driven by a single-mindedly desperate wish for Abbott’s downfall. As a result, #AshbyInquiryNow is seen as nothing more than tweet-spam; the left’s equivalent of #JuLIAR. While chants, hashtags, ranty blogposts and automated tweets may reinforce the views of your campaigners, it’s simply annoying for others and puts off any potential new supporters.
Social media prides itself on being what the traditional media is not – focussed on substance not political dramas, conducting analysis not witch-hunts, and being objective not pig-headedly partisan. Unfortunately, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign meets none of these criteria and I’ll be filtering it from my tweetstream from now on.
But if you find a way to challenge Tony Abbott with substance, analysis and objectivity, be sure to let me know. I’ll be one of the first to join the campaign.
Sometimes I feel like the political equivalent of Methuselah. I really shouldn’t, because I can only remember back to the latter days of the Hawke Government. There are plenty of others around who can remember even further back than me, to the Fraser and Whitlam years.
Aside from feeling extraordinarily old, the benefit of being able to remember back that far is that contemporary political events don’t feel unique but part of an evolving continuum. For those of us who’ve been watching politics a long time, it’s not often that one hasn’t seen something similar happen before.
The most striking recent example of this is the role that Steve Lewis played in the Slipper saga.
There was a lot of comment on Twitter that cast Lewis as the villain; accusing him of actively plotting with the protagonists on one side of the political drama to bring down the players on the other. In bringing down his perspicacious judgement on the matter, Justice Rares said that Lewis was simply doing his job.
Former SMH Chief of Staff and National Editor, Bernie Lagan, now writing for The Global Mail, casts a sharp but pragmatic eye over that part of Justice Rare’s finding:
If, as the judge finds, the whole of the Slipper affair was a calculated effort by James Ashby to politically damage Peter Slipper by abusing the court process, then some might say that Steve Lewis and News Ltd were remiss for going along with it by relying on the protection of court filings for their stories; that indeed Lewis should have seen through Ashby’s motivations from the outset.
But that would be naïve. More likely was that Lewis was well aware of Ashby’s motivations and those of other players, such as Mal Brough. Sources have all sorts of motivations for giving up information. What matters to the reporter is whether the material offered is newsworthy, factually correct and can be defended once published. The facts of the various sexually charged exchanges between Slipper and Ashby aren’t in question (what can be drawn from this most certainly is). And Lewis had waited to publish with the legal cover that came once Ashby had commenced his court action.
Looking at it from this perspective, one can easily think of other examples where journalists have published newsworthy stories in the knowledge that it may be damaging for the opponent of the person who furnished the story in the first place.
Laurie Oakes’ Walkley Award winning story on Cabinet leaks unfavourable to Prime Minister Gillard during the federal election campaign immediately come to mind.
As does the running commentary that Peter Hartcher provides against the Prime Minister in favour of the vanquished Rudd.
So the journalist as political player, to the extent that knowingly publishing harmful information makes one a player, is not exactly new or even considered to be unprofessional.
Unless you’re a self-styled journalism vigilante like Margo Kingston. Yes, that’s the same Margo Kingston who, while still working as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, published Not Happy John, which excoriated the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard. Following her retirement from journalism, Kingston also became actively involved in the campaign run against Howard in the seat of Bennelong, which claimed its genesis in her book.
Not surprisingly Kingston’s Wikipedia entry says she may be seen as part of the larrikin/ratbag Australian journalistic tradition which also encompasses Alan Ramsey and Stephen Mayne. “This tradition is characterised by a willingness to break with convention, espouse controversial opinions and intervene in the events which the journalist is reporting.”
I can attest first hand to this: I clearly remember being a wide-eyed newbie media adviser sitting with Kingston and her SMH colleague Mike Seccombe over coffee one day, listening to them discuss what else they could do to help Paul Keating oust Prime Minister Bob Hawke. From that day on, I knew that some political journalists saw their role as shaping political stories, not just reporting them. (See comment from Margo Kingston below that she was no big fan of Keating so this might have been spoken in *irony font*).
Right now Kingston is shaping another narrative, running a campaign this time against Tony Abbott based on him misleading the Australian Electoral Commission about a slush fund back in the late 1990s. I wish her the very best in that endeavour.
Kingston has so far refrained from accusing Lewis of being a player, retweeting without comment the Lagan piece mentioned above.
She’s been less restrained in accusing other sections of the media from taking a side, railing on Twitter about the editor of the Daily Telegraph burying Justice Rare’s findings on page 17 and Latika Bourke not asking about Ashby in a recent interview with Julie Bishop. In the latter case, Margo even implicitly encourages others to lodge a formal complaint against Bourke:
Those cheering the actions of Margo Kingston now and in the past as some sort of journalistic white knight need to think carefully about how her actions are different, or not, from those of Lewis, Bourke, the Daily Telegraph, Oakes or Hartcher.
In covering the points raised by Kingston in her latest campaign on Abbott’s slush fund, Michelle Grattan recently wrote:
Obviously, there were clear differences between Abbott’s slush fund, which was aimed at a broad political purpose (the destruction of Hanson and One Nation) and the limited self-serving objectives of the AWA body, let alone the vehicle for illegal behaviour that it became. But the point is, Abbott does not bring an unblemished record to the argument.
Next time Margo Kingston is tempted to accuse a journalist of being a political player, she should remember that she does not bring an unblemished record to the argument either.
Some politicians are just accidents waiting to happen. They’re incendiary devices that, once triggered, may cause only enough devastation to harm themselves or widespread and indiscriminate collateral damage. While some are unobtrusive until their tripwire is breached, others tick loudly causing those nearby to glance anxiously and frequently in their direction.
Peter Slipper sits firmly in the latter category, and most people in federal politics know it.
In terms that can only have been triple-checked by lawyers, journalists freely refer to Slipper as “Slippery Pete”, an apparent reference to his ability to survive political embarrassment, and brazenly document his enthusiastic enjoyment of the trappings of office. Some of Slipper’s other proclivities are reported too, including late night incidents in bars, being refused permission to board a plane, and catching a few zeds in parliament. Others are not reported, protected by the code of silence between politicians and the media on matters considered to be of a personal nature.
While officially Slipper is dubbed a “colourful” personality, the unofficial consensus when he became Speaker was that the experiment could only end in tears. The only unknown was whose tears would they be?
Perhaps they should be ours. The grave lesson for voters to take from the Slipper saga is that Gillard and Abbott showed not a shred of political judgement when they made him their catspaw. They recklessly exposed their parties to potential reputational devastation, and gave no thought to the emotional price that might be extracted from Slipper.
The Prime Minister would have only had to occasionally glance at a newspaper to have Slipper’s measure before she wooed him to become Speaker. Clearly the greater temptation was to finish the 2011 parliamentary year on a high political note by strengthening her parliamentary numbers and being able to rescind the politically unpalatable promise on poker machines she’d rashly made to Andrew Wilkie.
Did the PM not stop to consider that Abbott aimed to tear down anyone or anything that stood between him and the early demise of the Gillard minority government? By making him Speaker, Gillard effectively put a huge bullseye on Peter Slipper’s head.
Tony Abbott knew too, as did successive Liberal Party leaders before him, that Slipper was a potential walking disaster zone. Even a cursory due diligence investigation, such as those routinely conducted by political parties to ensure their candidates meet constitutional, statutory and civil propriety requirements, would have set off the warning bells. Nevertheless Slipper was continually re-endorsed for election by the Liberals from 1993 until he resigned to become an independent Speaker in 2011.
In reality Abbott was no more oblivious to Slipper’s ominous ticking than Gillard was. Once Slipper was made Speaker, and without even the slightest hint of chagrin, Abbott intoned that “Slipper is Gillard’s problem now”.
Subsequently either the Liberal Party or elements within it did their best to detonate Slipper, placing Ashby in his office to entrap and then claim sexual harassment. However, things did not quite go as planned.
Firstly, Slipper proved to be an excellent Speaker, showing neither fear nor favour to any MP, and being the first to eject a Federal Treasurer from the parliament in 80 years. He demonstrated an accomplished working knowledge of the House of Representatives’ powers, practice and procedures which endured strenuous testing every Question Time. The new Speaker even won over some of the cynical Twitter crowd who’d been strong fans of previous Speaker Harry Jenkins, and his idiosyncratic return to the ceremonial garments was welcomed by many as an effort to increase respect in the parliament by reinstating some of the tradition associated with the role.
Then, when the detonation finally came, it was not simply confined to Gillard’s hands. Justice Rare’s dismissal of Ashby’s sexual harassment claim redirected much of the messy and indiscriminate destruction back on to the Liberals and Tony Abbott. If it wasn’t so serious it would’ve been funny to imagine the host of cartoonish political players with an “oh I didn’t expect that” look on their explosive-streaked hands and faces.
It’s hard not to see there was always a good chance that no-one would prevail in the Slipper affair – and no-one has. Not the PM and Labor, who made the dubious decision to offer Slipper the position despite the probable consequences. Not Abbott and the Liberals, who turned a blind eye to Slipper’s flaws when he was one of theirs but ruthlessly tried to tear him down once he wasn’t.
Not Ashby. Not Brough. Not Slipper. Not the media or even the voters. None of us have emerged from the Slipper saga with our hands or consciences clean.
In some ways we the people have chosen to be political pawns too. Even now we play our part as the chorus, cheering and hissing from the colosseum benches while our pygmy gladiators, Gillard and Abbott, continue their battle. And nary a glance is made by any of us at the carnage they continue to leave in their wake.
Before I get to the substance of this post, I’d like to provide some context. I’m a former Liberal staffer. The last time I was employed as a political staffer was in 1993, and I’ve never worked for the Liberal Party since, nor am I member of any party. I do not vote, and have not done so for the past two ACT and federal elections. I will not be party to any vote that results in Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.
I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women. But I will not vote for her party either.
I provide this background in the hope that readers will accept that I have no political axe to grind when I say that the MSM’s coverage of yesterday’s political events is more perceptive than they are being given credit for, and that there seems to be a number of people using social media who are deluding themselves as to what actually happened.
Let’s revisit the event. After asking the Prime Minister in Question Time whether she continued to have full confidence in the Speaker and, if not, what steps she would take to remove him from the position, Tony Abbott then moved a motion to remove the Speaker due to him not being fit for office.
Abbott specifically used only the content of Slipper’s texts, which are in the public domain and uncontested, to craft his accusation against Slipper. Building upon the growing sentiment in the community against misogynist views and language demonstrated by the #destroythejoint movement, Abbott painted Slipper as a man who spoke of women generally, and one female Liberal MP specifically, in derogatory terms. He argued that a person with such objectionable views about women and who clearly had a bias against at least one MP was not fit for the non-partisan office of Speaker.
Abbott accused Slipper of being unfit for office based on the texts, not Ashby’s allegations which are still before the courts. In avoiding use of the Ashby allegations, Abbott denied the Government any grounds upon which to avoid the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, particularly that of needing to follow due process.
Nevertheless, due process was the Government’s chosen shield.
In fact, the Government had little else with which to defend itself. Having invested considerable political capital, in the form of senior female ministers, to raise and maintain concerns over Tony Abbott’s problems with female voters, the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion. Abbott’s speech drew a clear connection between the Prime Minister’s fitness for office and Slipper’s, thereby making the motion about her judgement in recruiting him to bolster the Government’s numbers.
The PM was faced with a stark choice: oppose the motion and be seen to be defending the Speaker, or support it in the knowledge that this would be seen as a concession of ill-judgement on her part. Any such concession would also cast a shadow over the PM’s judgement in related decisions such as the formation of minority government with the independents and the Greens.
So the stakes were high when Abbott moved his motion. I initially misunderstood his reason for doing so, thinking that its purpose was to remove the Speaker. In fact, the purpose of the motion was to wedge the Prime Minister into having to oppose it, defend her own judgement, and by association, that of Slipper’s too. It does not matter that Julia Gillard said not one word in defence of Slipper during her speech: Abbott expected that her opposition to the motion would be damning enough.
What Abbott did not expect was the damning words that the PM levelled at him during her speech; a speech which appears to have divided Labor supporters due to its visceral content and emotive delivery. Some voiced concern that the speech was not befitting of a Prime Minister and that it might be seen by casual political observers as an intemperate outburst.
Conversely, the PM’s speech was embraced by the people who have recently formed a front line against misogyny, chauvinism and disrespect against women in public discourse. The coincidental timeliness of the PM’s rousing words raised the spirits of those now experiencing and witnessing a withering backlash against the #destroythejoint movement.
And what of those not involved in or supportive of the DTJ campaign? It is important to look outside that bubble to really understand how yesterday’s events are being interpreted.
For those much less engaged in politics than us – and let’s accept that there are many of them – the event played out thus: Slipper sent texts that were derogatory of women and Abbott claimed a person that held such views was not fit to be Speaker. In opposing Abbott’s motion to remove the Speaker (read: defending the Speaker), the Prime Minister unleashed a tirade against Abbott recounting the many sexist views leveled against her personally, or women generally, which he had never withdrawn or denounced.
In base political terms, Abbott won the day: he wedged the Prime Minister into supporting the Speaker, and was unintentionally rewarded with Slipper’s scalp later that evening. Abbott has however set a dangerous precedent for judging an MP’s character based on their private text messages.
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech compelled some concerned female voters away from Tony Abbott and towards her. Maybe, if they are prepared to overlook her refusal to see Slipper’s texts as evidence that he was unfit to be Speaker. And maybe, if they are also comfortable with the PM delivering highly emotive attacks in Parliament.
Looking at it this way, it is understandable why the media may interpret yesterday’s events as being a potential setback for the Government. Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.