This is not a novel: The Ashbygate book and the back room man

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Ashbygate author Ross Jones assures us in the introduction that 'this is not a novel' — yet this is precisely how much of the book unfolds, writes Graham Jackson.

IN RECENT WEEKS, several interesting things have happened.

More of wheeling and dealing and Mal Brough later.

The main elements – and much of the salacious detail – of the Peter Slipper saga are reasonably well known, despite continuing media misrepresentations. Ashbygate sets the record straight and will take its place amongst standard texts of Australian political intrigue. In its use of text messaging to tell the story, Ashbygate also gives a modern feel to an old back room dealing storyline.

Jones assures us in the introduction that 'this is not a novel' — yet this is precisely how much of Ashbygate unfolds, in the best traditions of the epistolary novel. Through the texts, the reader is presented with the immediacy of the complex personal relationships as James Ashby joins Slipper’s staff and meets Karen Doane, another new appointment, and forms an alliance with her against their boss.

A possible unintended consequence of the use of texts is that the abbreviations and the ROFLs and LOLs of texting bring to the story elements of farce, melodrama and amateur hour — but perhaps this is just the nature of the human condition.

My only real criticism of the book is that the presentation of the texting is a little typographically blurry. All Ashby’s words – both texts and statement extracts – are in italics and visually precise. But the visual distinction between other text messages and author Ross Jones’ text is somewhat less clear. 

Largely through the texts the wider political story unfolds: Slipper’s appointment as Speaker, the media attack on him through fair means (cabcharges) and foul (rat images), Rudd’s 2012 leadership challenge to Gillard, and so on. Slipper becomes unhappy with Ashby dabbling in Queensland state politics. Mal Brough lurks in the background like a nineteenth century villain, while Slipper dons the quixotic black robes of the traditional Speaker.

A quotation from barrister Greg Barns on the cover of Ashbygate provides some of the wider political context of the book: ‘The Ashby affair was monumentally under reported by the mainstream media because it didn’t suit the “let’s destroy Gillard” agenda’. Nevertheless, despite the media’s best efforts, Gillard saw off the Rudd challenge in February 2012, at precisely the same time Ashby texted Slipper that he was still his loyal employee: 'I have no respect for Mal Brough and never will', he reassured his boss.

At this time, of course, Brough was out of parliament and 'playing a long game', as Jones puts it, plotting his return through an electoral challenge to Slipper. Crucially, the success of the ‘game’ depended on Brough, Ashby and Doane acting in "combination", as Justice Rares later concluded

“... to advance the interests of the LNP and Mr Brough.”

In doing so, as Ashbygate demonstrates, they had more than a little help (knowingly or unknowingly) from their friends — Pyne, Roy, Scoop Lewis… Please read the book for the entire cast.

The plot to take Slipper down picks up pace from Easter 2012 and so does the Ashbygate narrative. The story is now regularly in the mainstream media, with the bias of each media outlet on show. And so the long public humiliation and eventual downfall of Peter Slipper plays out, as he is pursued by the media through the media, and through the courts by Ashby, Doane and the Commonwealth, and at the end of it all found to be guilty of — nothing. Nothing, that is, other than some rather common human failings.

Now Slipper is off stage and Mal Brough has returned — the reinvigorated Member for Fisher. Formerly a minister in Howard’s Coalition governments, Brough has found preferment again, as a consequence of his work behind the scenes. Abbott was understandably cautious, given his former cabinet colleague’s predilection for the interests of number one. Not exactly a team player.

Nevertheless, he joined Team Turnbull to help overthrow Abbott and has been rewarded with, amongst other things, the Orwellian position of Special Minister of State. And so the Honourable Mal Brough can now roam through the back rooms of government agencies connected with his brief: Intelligence and Security, the Remuneration Tribunal, the Register of Lobbyists, Electoral Reform, Parliamentary Integrity, Public Interests Disclosure… Ah, now that could be worth looking into. Malcolm Turnbull, watch your back.

The wheel turns, combinations come and go, and the back room deals go on forever.

Ashbygate is a cloke and dagger thriller.

It is not a novel.

Ashbygate: The Plot to Destroy Australia's Speaker, by Ross Jones, published by Independent Australia, 2015, 359 pages. 

Twelve paperbacks signed by author Ross Jones and IA managing editor David Donovan are available from the IA store HERE.

If you miss out on a special signed copy, you can also order the Ashbygate book HERE, or by visiting the following independent bookstores:

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