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.