Mal Brough was appointed to a key position in Malcolm Turnbull's new ministry, yet the Canberra Press Gallery ignore the Ashbygate controversy swirling around him? Margo Kingston says it's all about the narrative.

WHAT? Mal Brough is our special minister of state? Excuse me?

Like so many Australians, I was filled with an unbearable lightness of being on the removal of Tony Abbott and with hope that a new era of honest, policy- based politics had begun.

Yes there was a little niggle when I saw Brough alongside Turnbull in the walk to the party room, but no, he’d never be promoted — surely?

I tweeted concern, though, when it was reported that he’d helped do Mr Turnbull’s numbers:

But Brough was unmentioned in the pre-reshuffle reporting, so imagine my surprise – no, horror! – when he was appointed special minister of state, the minister for honest politics! Huh?

Yet no-one – no-one – in the Press Gallery mentioned his intimate involvement in the hottest political story of 2012, the sexual harassment legal action by James Ashby against Peter Slipper, an action thrown out of Court for abuse of process, then dropped by Ashby after the appeal court ordered it be decided on the merits. Slipper was ruined and Ashby ordered to pay costs. (Later, after Ashby refused to follow up on the appear, this costs order was overturned.)

In the wash-up, two out of four federal court judges found Brough had been engaged in a conspiracy to bring down the government through legal action.

But the guts of Brough’s disqualification for ever being a minister again was that he lied about his involvement – over and over – and did his best to avoid answering questions, time after time.

In May 2012 he denied as “nonsense” the claim that he had any prior knowledge of court proceedings by Ashby. In June, after being outed, he said he did meet with Ashby about legal action but spoke to no-one in the Coalition about the matter. This was quickly exposed as a lie by court documents, which showed he was a key player in the Ashby plan for legal action and had tried to get him a job in the Liberal Party.

In September last year, A Sixty Minutes interview with Ashby forced him to admit he was the person codenamed “Jackie” in text message trails who organised legal advice and that he had procured Ashby to steal Slipper’s travel diary and send him excerpts:

Liz Hayes: “Did you ask James Ashby to procure copies of Peter Slipper’s diary for you?”

Mal Brough: “Yes I did.”

Then Labor backbencher Graham Perrett immediately wrote to the AFP urging it to investigate a possible crime.

After seven years retirement from political journalism, I returned to the fray in late 2012, flummoxed that amid Tony Abbott’s campaign to discredit Julia Gillard over a very old AWU slush fund story, the Press Gallery had completely forgotten that Abbott himself had lied about his involvement in bringing court action to destroy Pauline Hanson, which ultimately saw her jailed in 2003 before the judgement was overturned. His ‘Australians for Honest Politics’ slush fund saw ten people anonymously donate to bring her down in the Courts and he refused point-blank to disclose his donors to the Australian Electoral Commission.

Michelle Grattan was the only journo to publicly admit to forgetfulness and, despite my best efforts, the Press Gallery did not raise the issue with Abbott.

When Abbott’s Honest Politics lies and secrecy was hot in 2003, the press gallery closed ranks to protect their man. Part of the reason was that they thought he’d done the right thing and thus forgave his serial lies to the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald that he was not involved in the legal action. And part of the reason, in my view, is that he was a good source.

In an eerie parallel, after splashing Ashby’s legal action in 2012, the Press Gallery failed to pursue the explosive Federal Court judgement on the matter, much to the chagrin of Twitter and legal affairs commentator Richard Ackland. Yes, the judgement was late in the year and holidays beckoned, but the main factor in my opinion is that the story did not fit the prevailing narrative of an on-the-nose government and a dominant opposition. It was left to Twitter, an Ashbygate Trust formed with $50,000 donations to investigate, the website Independent Australia and Brough’s local paper the Sunshine Coast Daily to investigate.

And now, so very strangely, Brough’s unacceptable history is ignored by the Press Gallery on his promotion. It really can’t be forgetfulness this time, so why? I can’t help thinking it’s a narrative issue again. The narrative is the ascent of Turnbull and a brand new government. Gallery journalists are adjusting their work to accommodate a new power structure and new sources. They don’t want to disturb the narrative or cruel their chances of being a favoured recipient of stories.

And so it was left to Twitter, again. The hashtag #Ashbygate trended in Australia after the ministerial announcement, and Independent Australia told the story. Brough was interviewed by ABC 7.30 without mention of his history. Turnbull was not asked to justify his choice as special minister of state.

Only Emma Alberichi questioned Ashby on Lateline on Monday night and yet again he obfuscated. Remember that admission on Sixty Minutes?

Here’s what he said Tuesday night:

Alberici: “You asked Peter Slipper’s staffer James Ashby to make copies of Peter Slipper’s private diary. Was that appropriate?”

Brough: “No, that’s not correct. I mean, I know that that’s what’s been reported, but that is not exactly the right description of what occurred. But what I can tell you is that I stand by every action that I’ve taken…”

Alberici: “What part of what I just said then was not accurate?”

Brough: “Well all of these matters have been canvassed and dealt with by the courts, not that I was ever involved …”

Alberici: “But you’ve previously admitted that you asked for the procurement of those diaries. You’ve admitted on the public record.”

Brough: “When you ask me a question, I’m trying to give you a straight answer…”

To my mind, it is fundamental to the political journalist’s role to ensure if at all possible that a politician caught consistently lying to the people is not permitted to take a prominent role in our nation’s affairs. We must do our best to make that politician – and politicians who promote him despite their record – are accountable.

It is obvious to me that Mal Brough is an unacceptable choice to be special minister of state — responsible for entitlements, political staffers and electoral matters. Perhaps an admission of deceit, a full explanation of what happened and a promise to be truthful in future might help. But Mal Brough will have none of that and hopes his past is forgotten. The Press Gallery is abetting him – and Mr Turnbull – to do just that.

The Ashby scandal was one of the nastiest episodes on Mr Abbott’s nasty record as opposition leader and prime minister, and now it haunts the new Government and shames the Press Gallery once again. Such a pity.

P.S. The Press Gallery was stung into action yesterday after the Alberici interview and subsequent coverage by Independent Australia.

This story was originally published on No Fibs on 22 September 2015 under the title 'Please @turnbullmalcolm don’t soil new era with #Ashbygate liar @MalBrough_MP: @margokingston1 comments'. You can follow Margo Kingston on Twitter @MargoKingston1.

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