Abbott and Gillard both complicit in exploitation of Slipper


Kudelka, Aust 14 Dec 2012
Kudelka, Aust 14 Dec 2012

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.

13 thoughts on “Abbott and Gillard both complicit in exploitation of Slipper

  1. What a great piece this was, thank you for writing it.

    I wish you had mentioned Slipper’s excellent chairing of the unruly House. It would have made him look like less of a victim. Everyone’s a volunteer; I felt for Slipper in his tearful resignation speech, but he’s a big boy and knows full well how the game is played.

    Such an examination might have helped in working out the extent to which “we” are truly part of events that only invoke our name when the players can no longer claim Capital Circle brownie-points.

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    1. Thanks for the great comment and suggestion. I’ve added a para on Slipper’s time as Speaker.

      It’s hard to know whether Daily Tele readers gave two hoots about Slipper or not. For the life of me, I don’t understand why they would. On the other hand, I’d say those of us who are online and politically engaged have been definitely participating in (and exacerbating) the tawdry saga.

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  2. Agree with you on this – good summation. Primary error was Gillards – it was VERY clear that Slipper was not worth the risk. As you point out, his behaviour track record was well-known. It was a stupid political decision which almost immediately blew up in the PM’s face. Without this opportunistic decision – even on a knife edge majority – the government would probably be in a better position.

    Coalition in response have been appalling. They have attempted to engage the media (News Ltd in particular) and the courts in a purely political exercise. Rares judgement is not equivocal about this – they made sure Slipper (who, as far as we know, has not committed any offence) was disadvantaged legally, politically and in the eyes of the public. Their conduct is dishonest and shameful. Perhaps even they are aware of this – their response this week has been to hide.

    Ultimately I think the government comes out of this worse than the opposition because it is seen as more responsible for the chaos and confusion.

    I have been one of the chorus ‘hissing from the colosseum benches’ – at both sides at various times. Not sure I have been heard!

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  3. one thing I genuinely don’t understand in all this is why mal brough chose to be involved at all.

    having accepted the speakership,slipper wasnt going to be preselected by the lnp for fischer again. neither would he succeed as an independent. why take the risk?

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  4. It’s farcical that some people here think Gillard is in any way suffering from yesterday’s judgment. All the egg is on the faces of the Liberals, and all right thinking people know this.

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  5. Here is a FACTUAL document its called a judgement you may like to read it. Tony Abbot is MIA…. I always find that the best weapon for self important opinion is fact.

    3 Mr Slipper applied to have these proceedings dismissed as an abuse of the process of the Court. Mr Slipper contended that Mr Ashby’s predominant purpose in bringing the proceedings against him, in combination with Karen Doane (another member of Mr Slipper’s staff), the Hon Malcolm Brough (who was seeking to contest Mr Slipper’s seat for the LNP at the next federal election), Steve Lewis (a journalist, employed by one of News Limited’s subsidiaries as the national political correspondent for the Daily Telegraph), Anthony McClellan (a media consultant engaged by Mr Ashby) and Mr Ashby’s lawyers, Michael Harmer and his firm, Harmers was, in effect, to inflict damage on Mr Slipper’s reputation and political career in order to assist the LNP and Mr Brough and, so, to advance Mr Ashby’s and Ms Doane’s prospects of advancement or preferment by the LNP. The present application has been bitterly fought.
    4 The legal principles at the heart of Mr Slipper’s central allegation that the proceeding is an abuse of process are not in doubt.

    CONCLUSION
    196 Having read all of the text messages on Mr Ashby’s mobile phone, as Mr Ashby’s senior counsel invited me to do, as well as the other evidence, I have reached the firm conclusion that Mr Ashby’s predominant purpose for bringing these proceedings was to pursue a political attack against Mr Slipper and not to vindicate any legal claim he may have for which the right to bring proceedings exists. Mr Ashby began planning that attack at least by the beginning of February 2012. As Mr Ashby and Ms Doane agreed in their texts of 30 March 2012 what they were doing “will tip the govt to Mal’s [Brough] and the LNP’s advantage”: [66]. It may be a coincidence that Mr Ashby suggested to Mr Slipper the idea of becoming Speaker just as Mr Brough began to move towards challenging Mr Slipper for LNP pre-selection for his seat and Mr Ashby ended up in an alliance in late March 2012 with Mr Brough to bring down Mr Slipper after he became Speaker. It is not necessary to make any finding about this or about whether Mr Slipper did sexually harass Mr Ashby in any of the ways alleged. It is also not necessary to consider whether these proceedings are “vexatious proceedings” within the meaning of r 6.02 or if that expression has a different meaning in r 26.01(1)(b) under which the Court can give summary judgment if “the proceeding is frivolous or vexatious”.

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  6. Whilst Gillard’s decisions certainly played a part in the personal destruction of Slipper, it seems that Abbot and his gang of co-conspirators were prepared to enter any cesspool to achieve the objective of pulling down a government.
    A ‘whatever it takes’ philosophy in an opposition is deeply disturbing if you actually believe in democracy.
    Given the behaviour of the Coalition in this matter, and its leader, they are totally unfit to be the government. What ever happened to the so-called ‘Liberal values’? Traduced by ego and ambition?
    Welcome to the worst attributes of the Americanisation of Australia!

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  7. Gillard did make a political judgement. She had to choose between Wilkie or Slipper. The poser: which one of these would potentially be more likely to bring down the government in the short term? Political strategising is not for the faint hearted and the PM has proven she has the ticker.

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  8. Fine piece, Paula. Would you consider another on how you feel this saga might pan out in 2013? Despite the lack of media interest, forensic reporting, analysis or investigation, I feel it has a long way to go. But where? And how will the big two parties, the Greens and the independents play it tactically?

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    1. Thanks Margo. I’m not sure yet whether I will write again on this topic. I always try to keep an eye on the big picture, longer-term themes, trends, behaviours etc, rather than getting into the detail. I don’t always succeed, however, and do occasionally get caught up in the minutiae.

      From the bigger picture perspective, MPs and parties are constantly trying to knock off their opponents. Although we’ve never before seen such a blatant case of attempted-entrapment, we are now living in a time where it is less and less possible to keep such plots secret. Interestingly, in the case of Rudd, he’s utilising this to his own ends: his thinly-veiled attacks on the PM and acts of self promotion ensure she feels constantly under pressure.

      At the detailed level, it will be interesting to see what Ashby and Slipper do next, but frankly I’m more interested in how the federal election plays out over the year. Nearly all the Indies are dead in the water, the Greens’ vote has plateaued and the major parties go into the election year with deeply unpopular leaders. Nevertheless, I see a movement away from the Indies and Greens to the major parties. Time will only tell how much of the current Coalition vote is soft.

      The other thing that interests me, arising from the Slipper saga, is how the relationship between journalists and their sources may change. We now know that nothing can be said or kept in confidence if it is committed to SMS. The hundreds of pages of text messages retrieved from Ashby’s phone will now give any journalist pause for thought before they make arrangements or give undertakings by text.

      And as we have discussed, the role of journalist as player has now become a topic of discussion whereas in the past it has barely been acknowledged as fact.

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  9. Re your last comment, I too am very interested in the SMS aspect of the Slipper saga. Those ‘vile’ texts he got the chop for were sent well before Ashby took the job. The men were friends, so they were private texts between friends and had nothing to do with the court action, which was for sexual harassment during his employment.

    Who knows the context here? Personally, i had no issue with Slipper’s remarks. I disagree with them, strongly, but feel everyone has the right to talk rough/dirty/unsound in private texts with friends. How come this didn’t get debated? How come everyone rushed to judgement that he’d proved his misogyny and had to go? To my mind there is a strong case to argue that this is on the private side of the fence. Who would gladly release their private text exchanges with friends? Who has never regretted sending a text? Who has not sent a vile one?

    I reckon this would be a strong argument to put to the Libs, as the right to privacy is central to liberal beliefs (and mine, by the way, being a small l liberal myself).

    To boot, Labor could have argued that for fairness,if the Libs wanted Slipper’s head over private texts, then they had to release all their texts with Ashby (thinking here particularly of Pyne).

    Having had a good look at the media recently, it seems to me it rushes to judgment without leaving any space for debate. It also leaves out crucial facts for people to actually make an informed judgement. For example, as someone who watched TV news for my news until recently, I had no idea Slipper and Ashby were friends before Ashby started working for Slipper, or that the vile texts were exchanged before Ashby started in the job.

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    1. Yes, the media does often rush to judgement without leaving any space for debate. That is a key criticism of modern Australian political journalism. Who is to blame for the deterioration is an interesting question. At what point should the media give their audiences what they should want, rather than what they do want?

      On the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, I’d venture that his tweets were the final straw. Slipper was a ticking time bomb and obviously Oakeshott and Windsor decided it was time to have him defused when they insisted that he step down. Perhaps more needs to be asked of them as to why they made that decision.

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  10. Oakeshott and Windsor have nothing to answer for. It’s Brough, Entsch, Abbott, Hockey, Pyne, Brandis and Bishop who have questions to answer.

    One of the questions that is going to be answered the soonest is, Who is going to pay for Ashby’s legal bills?

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