Written over several years, the playwright David Ives, named his unconnected montage of single act plays, It’s all in the timing. It would be an appropriate name too for the Peter Slipper affair. Far from a single event or controversy, a collection of skeletons from the Liberal turncoat’s closet dating back to the days of the Howard government have seemingly all come to light at once. With Julia Gillard’s minority government already beleaguered by scandals, leadership uncertainty and consistently poor polling, the timing of this latest allegation could not be more suspicious. In the Machiavellian world of federal politics, coincidence is an unknown word. The criminal and civil charges against Slipper are serious and he was right to stand down as speaker but the reactionism, opportunism and presumption of guilt displayed by virtually the entire House of Representatives indicates a low point in an age of political minnows.
James Hunter Ashby, a 33 year old staffer, has accused his old boss of misusing cabcharge vouchers. Three separate incidents, alleged to have happened in January 2012, are being investigated by federal police. Ashby has since accused Slipper of ‘unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome sexual comments and unwelcome suggestions of a sexual nature’. Now these are serious accusations and the investigation must be allowed to run its course but if the information so far provided to the media reveals the extent of Slipper’s behaviour, then they must be dismissed as groundless slander and the latest attempt by the Liberals to bring down Gillard’s tenuous government.
There are many inconsistencies in Ashby’s story. Ashby claims that Slipper has a history of sexual harassment dating back to 2003 when, as a member of John Howard’s government, he allegedly made advances to a young male staffer. A video was produced that shows Mr Slipper intimately embracing the young man and also urinating out a window. It was brought to the attention of a senior staffer, Megan Hobson, who argued that the video clearly showed any relationship was consensual and nothing came of it.
Mr Ashby claims between June and August 2011 he was invited to Slipper’s house. After Ashby revealed he was gay, he was repeatedly offered a job. In December 2011 he accepted and began working for Slipper. Ashby claims between January and March 2012, Slipper sent him lewd text messages and made unwanted advances. He claims that when he stayed at Mr Slipper’s house in Hughes, Slipper showered with the door open and called Ashby a ‘prude’ for not doing the same. He also claims that Slipper requested a neck massage while wearing only his shorts. During the massage, ‘Slipper began to moan in a manner that to [him] indicated intense sexual pleasure’.
There are several obvious questions arising from these accusations. If Ashby knew Slipper had a history of approaching young male staffers, why did he accept a job working for him? Why did Ashby agree to stay the night several times at Slipper’s house? Why did Ashby agree to give him a massage? All of these things are completely outside of his requirements as a staff member. Ashby is not an inexperienced, easily manipulated young man. In 2002, he was forced to resign from Newcastle radio station NX-FM after pleading guilty to making abusive calls. Slipper could not physically intimidate Ashby nor could he hold power over him as an employer (if Ashby’s testimony is correct and Slipper pleaded with him to take the job). There is, from the information currently available, a huge burden of proof if Mr Ashby is to sustain his accusations.
Any cab driver in Canberra will confirm that sexual relationships between politicians and staffers are extraordinarily common. Overwhelmingly these are consensual affairs. Some staffers see it as a way to curry favour or career advancement, but more often than not it is simply a case of developing feelings for a person who they admire, who has power and who they work closely with. It is also common for these relationships to turn sour. Rob Oakeshott noted today that it was regrettably frequent in Australian politics for ‘malicious allegations [to come] from a former rogue employee’.
Whatever the outcome, the current braying for blood reeks of hypocrisy and opportunism. Predictably, Abbott demanded he step down immediately. After Slipper did step down, Abbott used the affair to highlight the government’s incompetence and poor judgement in appointing him. Gillard has returned fire, stating that Slipper has received Liberal pre-selection nine times including under Abbott’s leadership. Neither seemed concerned if the allegations were true or not. In typically verbose fashion, Oakeshott declared himself, ‘open minded on a no confidence motion that may come before the House in May in regards the speakership’.
The defection of Slipper from the Liberal backbench to the Speaker’s chair has been good for the Australian parliament. He is the first truly independent and impartial speaker in a long time. It was a blow, however, to the independents who help sustain the minority Labor government. The extra vote provided by the return of Harry Jenkins made Gillard just that little bit less reliant on the independents. Andrew Wilke, who with some justification felt the government betrayed him by watering down his pokie reforms, has stated, ‘if they come back to me needing my support again, as far as poker machine reform goes, the price will be mightily higher’. Like Oakeshott, Wilke seems determined to exploit this situation to increase his power and force the government’s hand. He has already held a meeting with Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin and will feel empowered to demand a $1 bet limit for poker machines in return for supporting the current government.
One of the few level heads in this debacle has been the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon. She reminded us that all people, even politicians, are entitled to the presumption of innocence and warned against a ‘trial by media’. South Australian Liberal senator, Sean Edwards, is currently facing charges of misleading and deceptive conduct. Fellow Liberal senator from SA, Mary Jo Fisher, has only recently been cleared of theft charges. Labor MP, Craig Thompson is being investigated for using union funds to, among other things, pay for prostitutes. All three have been able to continue in the roles. The documents outlining Mr Ashby’s allegations have been released to the public and they are far from convincing. Regardless of their truth, now is a perfect time for an ambitious Liberal staffer to harangue an already mortally wounded government, for an Opposition comfortably ahead in the polls to cement their position and for normally irrelevant independents to push through their pet reforms. When it comes to politics, it truly is all about timing.
James Ashby and Peter Slipper