On the slippery slope with Slippery Pete

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James Ashby's allegations against Peter Slipper appeared to be the golden goose for the Coalition, but it has turned around to bite them, says Dr Benjamin Thomas Jones.

The three amigos: Mal Brough, James Ashby and Christopher Pyne each met numerous times in the lead-up to Ashby allegations.

When news broke that the Independent Speaker, Peter Slipper, was being investigated by the Australian Federal Police for travel fraud and was facing an allegation of sexual harassment, it appeared to be yet another scandal for Julia Gillard’s shaky minority government. In the Machiavellian world of politics, things are rarely as they seem. Independent Australia was the first to suggest something was amiss in the curious case of the speaker and the staffer. Now, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the case has become curiouser and curiouser!

It is little wonder that Joe Hockey came out yesterday pleading for an end to "all of this speculation" about Slipper. Problems first arose for the Coalition last week when Chris Pyne claimed he could not remember meeting with James Ashby. It has since been revealed that Ashby – a former Liberal party member and Slipper staffer, who now claims the former Speaker sexually harassed him – not only met with the senior Coalition figure Christopher Pyne in the immediate lead up to Ashby's lawsuit for a two hour late night drinking session, but less than 20 minutes after that rendezvous, Pyne sent an email and text message seeking Ashby’s details. Pyne has accepted the evidence, but maintains he doesn’t remember asking for the contact details...

It is understandable that Pyne now wants to forget the whole affair — like Hockey. Even more damaging for the Coalition is the revelation that former Howard Government minister Mal Brough – who is planning to challenge for Mr Slipper’s seat of Fisher – met with Ashby on numerous occasions and urged him to take action against the Speaker, even meeting Ashby with a lawyer on at least one occasion. It was revealed yesterday that Ashby had contacted deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop’s office and that opposition whip Warren Entsch had tried to ring Mr Abbott the night before Mr Ashby’s allegations were published. Pyne and Brough's stories seem to change daily.

Opposition MPs, including Abbott, are now using the precise term "no specific knowledge" when asked what they knew beforehand about Ashby's claims — implying, in the minds of many, that they certainly knew something. Indeed, Tony Abbott, normally the first man seen in a flouro vest and hardhat for a photo stop, has not been sighted in several days, after abruptly walking out of a press conference after journalists began pestering him about the links between Pyne, Brough and Ashby — and what he knew.

More curious still.

It can hardly be disputed that the Opposition was feigning surprise when the story first broke. It is clear that several senior figures were well aware of the impending story and it is difficult to believe Ashby has not been coached by the Liberal Party to gain maximum impact. New foreign minister, Bob Carr, drew a fiery response from Hockey for commenting:
‘This Ashby seems more rehearsed than a Kabuki actor’.

With the numbers in the House of Representatives so precarious, the Opposition had a lot to gain from Slipper’s removal which forced Labor to provide another speaker and lose a crucial vote. The man with the most to gain is Brough, who is trying to remove Slipper from a seat he has held for all but three years since 1984. Alarmingly, the press at large has been reluctant to join the dots in the Slipper case. Annabel Crabb, who has returned to Fairfax, even wrote an article mocking supposed conspiracy theorists. She concedes that it is 'intensely convenient' but ridicules the idea of 'a sophisticated plot for the Liberal Party’.

It may well be asked, how sophisticated does the plot need to be? When Slipper left the Liberals and took the Speaker’s chair, he cost the Coalition one vote and gave Labor one — courtesy of Harry Jenkins returning to Labor’s backbench. It is natural enough that the Coalition would welcome any tarnishing of Slipper’s name, but the accusations made by Ashby are hopelessly unconvincing. Even Coalition senator Barnaby Joyce has dismissed the sexual harassment claim noting that Ashby was "not a boy in his teens but a man in his 30s". The allegations made to the police were made public and they simply raise more questions than they answer. The Coalition is clearly not interested in protecting a vulnerable staffer, but are focussed solely on attacking a vulnerable government.

Should the claims against Slipper prove to be false, the whole slippery affair may come back to bite the Coalition. If this happens, it will be history repeating itself in very short cycles. Just three years ago, Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader desperately tried to bring down Kevin Rudd’s government with the Utegate scandal. With the allegations proving false and a key email having been forged, the Liberals were left with egg on their faces. They had tried to exploit Godwin Grech, a passionate supporter of the Liberal party, to bring down the Government — but when your main weapon is so openly partisan, suspicions will inevitably be aroused. Ashby is also known to have made two videos for yet another Liberal pre-selection candidate vying for Slipper’s seat along with Brough — while he still worked in Slipper’s office. Ashby, like Grech, is a current or recent Liberal Party member and is known to have ties to senior Liberal figures. He is also a man with a criminal past and, in Joyce’s words, "he seems only slightly less dodgy than Slipper". And there are other, even more unsavoury, allegations surrounding him.

The Opposition have never really recovered from their landslide 2007 defeat. They have been highly effective at criticising the Government, but have failed to construct and sell effective alternative policies. The situation has become even more acute following the hung parliament of 2010. Abbott, like Turnbull before him, is banking on a great scandal to bring down the Government. He is desperately hoping he will not have to wait until the next election and that a vote of no confidence, an Independent crossing the floor, a legal allegation, or an unexpected by-election, will gift him the prime ministership. As with Grech, it is doubtful the Ashby claims will topple the government.

In Australia to promote his new movie, The Dictator, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen demanded to know where Slippery Pete was, so he could add him to the staff of his fictional ministry. It was an appropriate jibe, as the whole affair, frankly, is a joke. The Government, in all likelihood, will survive a full term and it is up to Abbott to prepare strong alternative policies with full costings. For the immediate future at least, it would pay for the Coalition to focus less on stunts and ambitious young staffers, and more on the weighty task of forming the next government. If not, Abbott could well pay the same price as Turnbull for trying to take the easy ride to high office.

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