Michael Danby MP: The costly persecution of Peter Slipper

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The "member for lost causes" Michael Danby (centre) became friends with Peter Slipper (right) on the Australian All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet. Here they met Dr Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan administration in exile on 28/6/12 (Image via tibetoffice.org)

During an appropriations debate in Parliament this week (3/3/15), Labor MP Michael Danby reflected on the public resources spent pursuing former Speaker Peter Slipper over $954 after he was exonerated last week.

Just as the member for Blair said when speaking on this appropriations debate, he was to speak widely and wisely, so am I. I am going to reflect on some expenditure that I will not say was deliberately misspent, but I do not think these monies were spent wisely by the Australian Federal Police, by the Department of Finance and by the courts. Some of the things I say will be unpopular, particularly with members of the government, but they have to be said.

In the ACT Supreme Court, on 25 February, Judge John Burns exonerated the former Speaker of this parliament. He said, quite rightly, that having lunch with staff could be considered parliamentary duties, given the definition was so wide. The failure to apply to former Speaker Slipper, the Minchin protocols by which all of us in this place are able to repay taxi fares or travel expenses that are undertaken mistakenly or not properly notified is something that led to injustice. It led to a whole series of misallocation of resources in the pursuit of the former Speaker. These included the cost of Slipper's prosecution by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions over this $954 Cabcharges. Defending himself cost him more than $150,000 personally. These events cost him his reputation, his marriage, nearly cost his life and his mental health. And it cost the Commonwealth, in its various manifestations, at least $400,000 to $500,000 to pursue one member's taxi receipts.

Was this a wise expenditure of public money?

When Peter Slipper accepted the speakership he insisted that he would not be party to maintaining Labor in office. He felt that the Labor Government was going to stay in office whether he accepted the Speakership or not.

Slipper being made Speaker, of course, made it a little easier for Labor on the floor of the House, but the Labor Government was able to survive when Mr Jenkins was Speaker before Slipper and with Ms Burke after Slipper. He was a very good Speaker. I remember, to the surprise of the Coalition, he sat then Treasurer Wayne Swan down in his seat. There was praise for him in the media at the time as a person who knew the procedures and the rules. There was an article by Geoff Kitney in the Financial Review which was typical of this praise.

Also related to this misspending of public moneys and highlighted in the Federal Court's refusal on 9 February 2015 for Mr Ashley's applications for costs in this case. These costs are estimated at $3 million. The Federal Court added the Commonwealth's costs to Ashby's costs and his lawyer's costs. The Federal Court's judgement made clear that Ashby's sexual harassment claims were never vindicated, as he had claimed, subsequent to the judgment of Justice Rares, being invalidated by the Federal Court. When Ashby withdrew the sexual harassment case, on 14 June, he stated that he believed the Federal Court's decision to grant an appeal had indirectly suggested harassment had, in fact, occurred. The Federal Court judgement makes it explicitly clear that that was not the case.

The final paragraph of its finding says:

'But for the discontinuance of his claim, Ashby may well have been tested about why the primary proceeding was instituted in the terms it first appeared, and on a range of matters raised by Slipper arising in his summary dismissal application and in his defence of the claim.'

Then the organ grinders of the then Opposition orchestrated this persecution of the Speaker that was a vast waste of public money and the monkeys, in the form of Ashby and Co. were left with the bill.

It is true the Federal Court made a two-to-one decision to overturn Justice Rares, giving Ashby the benefit of the doubt — for reason of procedural fairness. The court wanted to let him proceed with this case even though Justice Rares had made a very strong judgement against them.

Remember, these Ashby allegations transfixed Australia. They led to 12 front pages in the Daily Telegraph, including the former speaker being portrayed as a rat with drawings all around him with tails and whiskers. Lady Di only got nine front pages! And then they were withdrawn with the merest whimper!

Justice Rares, who examined the case most comprehensively, said it was an abuse of process. The judge skewered Mr Ashby's solicitors, Harmers, for a strategy that was designed to:

'… to expose Mr Slipper to the maximum degree of vilification, opprobrium, sensation and scandal and to cause maximum damage to his reputation to the political advantage of the LNP and Mr Brough.'

Mr Brough, the current Member for Fisher was then Slipper’s self-interested opponent, being his opponent in the electorate.

Harmers, who backed Ashby, are an important type of lawyers for all of us members of parliament to contemplate and assess. What happened to Slipper could happen to any of us. Sensational public allegations could be used by such legal firms on a no win, no fee basis. Or as they did in the David Jones case, make sensationalist allegations, which is probably the reason Harmers were brought into this case against Slipper. This is a very dangerous precedent, a slippery slope of political assassination. 

Rares found the claim made by Ashby was an abuse of process.

Judge Rares said:

'… 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.'

James Ashby stole his employer's diary. I wonder if Mr Katter, the Member for Kennedy who is in the chamber, would like one of his staff to steal his diary and give it to the Daily Telegraph. It is an absolutely unethical thing for any employee to do. Moreover his sensationalised affidavit introduced the 2003 allegations about an alleged sexual relationship with Slipper. He swore affidavits in which he made assertions about Cabcharges 'had no legitimate forensic purpose”, the judge said, in a sexual harassment case.

Rares added:

"They were not included in the originating application to advance any bona fide cause of action that Mr Ashby … had against … the Commonwealth or Mr Slipper. The effect of their inclusion and, I find, the purpose … was to further damage Mr Slipper in the public eye and politically and to attract to him significant adverse publicity …"

After dropping his allegations in midyear 2014, Ashby later appeared on 60 Minutes. It was recently re-shown, in January.

On that program, James Ashby claims to have been induced by Liberal MPs, prominent members now in government, into making his sordid claims. What Ashby told 60 Minutes about these alleged inducements directly contradicts what he put on oath in a sworn affidavit to the justices who overturned, in a 2-1 decision, Rares' forensic judgement. I wonder, if the judges had seen what Ashby said on 60 Minutes, whether they would have indeed overturned Judge Rares's forensic dissection of Ashby's activities? I am sure they would not have.

Accordingly, after the program, I wrote to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, inviting him to investigate whether perjury had occurred and whether the appeal judges were misled by the affidavit. 

At the very least, Ashby's claim of inducements, made on national television twice now, in July and January, should have been known to the appeal judges when they reviewed Rares's judgement. Perhaps millions of dollars spent chasing Slipper's $900 taxi fares – the millions of dollars spent by the Department of Finance, the AFP and in the courts – might never have had to have been contemplated if we had known of the sleazy inducements in the beginning. Regarding these Cabcharge fares, it was silly to go beyond the boundaries of Canberra for lunch with staff, but they were still ultimately found by a judge to be possibly “parliamentary business”. If we had also known that, as Mr Ashby now confesses on television, that he was offered inducements, the judgement of Judge Rares would have been clearly upheld.

I am reluctant to believe anything that Ashby says, even if is politically convenient for my side of politics, or me personally, to believe it. Yet if he told the truth to 60 Minutes, there is a powerful message to all MPs from this: the politics of personal destruction, even for a member as unpopular as Peter Slipper, engineered by the member for Warringah and the member for Sturt will consume its perpetrators. We see this political vengeance carried through with the obscenely expensive royal commissions the Abbott Government have now launched into prime ministers Rudd and Gillard. Such Medici-like vengeance has no proper place in Australian public or parliamentary life. The admission by Mr Brough, the current member for Fisher, Mr Slipper's former electorate, on 60 Minutes that he had directed a G Gordon Liddy style black-ops misappropriation of the Speaker's confidential diary, is one that the Prime Minister has already had good reasons to carefully contemplate. The old warning 'Be careful what you become, in pursuit of what you want' should be ringing in the ears of members of the government after this disturbing 60 Minutes broadcast.

I witnessed – and I want to record this for the Hansard – on a daily basis, in the months of February, March and April 2012, what appeared to me when I went into the Speaker's office an entirely professional relationship between him and his constituent adviser. Strangely excluded from the 60 Minutes program was Extra Minutes, a special that they broadcast 60 Minutes online. In Extra Minutes, it is very odd that Mr Ashby, who claims to have been repulsed by the Speaker's approaches and presence, made it clear that the last straw for him in the perpetual betrayal of his employer was that the then Speaker would not take him on a first-class trip to Hungary!

As David Marr argued in The Guardian:

'A few days later, under Brough's direction, Ashby began scouring Slipper's office records for damaging details of travel expenses to be fed to Telegraph journalist Steve Lewis.'

I will not go into all of the details, as I planned to, about the scurrilous role of the Murdoch press in all of this, including The Daily Telegraph, or the securing of him in a safe News Ltd house in Sydney like a spy come in from behind enemy lines. If he was a spy he was more like Lonley than Callan. I just want to conclude with some points about how that destruction of the Speaker was used to destroy the Gillard Government. It was effected total disregard and such a terrible destruction of one individual. Slipper was a competent Speaker. Slipper may be an eccentric character. Slipper probably said stupid things, sexist things, to his staff member. Let us all remember this: the texts that were introduced into this Parliament by the member for Curtin, only available after the stupid and inexplicable settlement by Attorney General Roxon, were made from a conversation between Ashby and Slipper months before Ashby was in his employment! What would any of us think of a person, who was a prospective employee of ours, who recorded our telephone conversations, personal texts between us, with a possible view to blackmail? You inveigle yourself. You try and become popular with the person you are seeking employment form and then you cut their political throats.

I know the case of Slipper.

He married a younger woman, Inge, a beautiful person. She convinced the then Speaker Slipper to take a more modern tolerant view to hire this gay man, Ashby. They took him into their bosom. They took him into their office and into their confidence. And then their trust was abused in the most dastardly way. I saw that man, Ashby, in the Speaker's office all the time, working happily with the Speaker; lots of repartee. Only when Ashby’s overseas trips or the prospect of bringing down the government and getting vast amounts of cash or other rewards suggested to him induced him that he could profit from take another course, did he betray and destroy the couple that had looked after him so well.

There are other people who share guilt in this abuse of process too; this injustice. The former Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, should never have made a different standard for the then Speaker than what had been made for all leading members of this parliament. He should have had a legal defence from the beginning. Now, we all have insurance to protect ourselves, each of us, from an employee doing a similar malevolent or baseless thing to us. That scheme is justified. The former Special Minister of State, the Member for Brand is an excellent person who foresaw this problem, not just for Labor but for all sides of politics, and introduced our current insurance schemes. That same standard of justice and treatment should be applied to all electorate, ministerial staff and MPs.

It was also dishonourable that his solicitors, the firm of Maurice Blackburn, abandoned Slipper on the edge of court, after the Commonwealth unwisely made its separate deal with Ashby for $50,000 — a deal which, if it would have waited, Justice Rares would have invalidated. Just as the CabCharge allegation has been invalidated in a Canberra court. Finally we would have known, via 60 Minutes, that this was all done because of prospective inducements....

Some people affectionately refer to me as the "member for lost causes" in this Parliament because of my support for Tibet, Darfur and the Baha'is and various individuals like Anwar Ibrahim, for whom all hope seems lost. I never imagined when I came to be in this Parliament that I would become a friend or defender of a former Liberal National Party member from Queensland, Peter Slipper, but this is not over.

If the CDPP recommends, after advice from the Federal Police, that these inducements be looked at, then I repeat, this is not over. There will be, in the end, and despite his awful political crucifixion, justice for Slipper; and, as there always should be, justice for all.

You can also follow Melbourne Ports MP Michael Danby on Twitter @MichaelDanbyMP. Find out more about the Ashbygate saga here. This speech was taken from Hansard. You can watch the speech here:

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