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With George Brandis coming out James Ashby's new best friend, it’s all starting to look like Ashbygate 2.0, says Ross Jones (Image via @CFMEU)

Lightning bolts are armed and ready to be hurled into the heart of One Nation, writes Sydney bureau chief and Ashbygate investigator Ross Jones.

A PERFECT STORM is forming over One Nation.

Zeus is taking aim.

For starters, the party is riven with internal strife. Someone close to the top is leaking to the media, so now the whole world knows the fleecing of candidates merited, at a minimum, serious discussion. Head Office too is falling apart, with allegations of bullying and candidate intimidation. And more leaks.

Many Queensland candidates are having second thoughts and it is likely the party will limp to the Queensland elections, if it lasts that long, with only a rump of the currently listed candidates likely to be still standing on polling day.

The "if it lasts that long" proviso is because, as The Guardian says:

'The provenance and use of a plane by Pauline Hanson to campaign for One Nation is under investigation by the electoral commission.'

Back on 18 January 2017, in 'Pauline Hanson lying high: The strange case of James Ashby's aeroplane', IA broke the story that the One Nation plane was actually James Ashby’s personal property.

We said at the time:

… something about that plane doesn’t smell right.

It stinks to high heaven.

The Electoral Commission obviously agrees. Last week it launched a formal enquiry, issuing notices under S316 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which requires One Nation to

... produce, within the period and in the manner specified in the notice, the documents or other things referred to in the notice; or,

appear, at a time and place specified in the notice, before the authorised officer to give evidence, either orally or in writing, and to produce the documents or other things referred to in the notice.

How that will go is anyone’s guess, but probably not well.

To make matters worse, on 23 May, the tip of a very threatening cumulonimbus, otherwise known as the "Ashbygate" cloud, peeked over the horizon.

Queensland Senator Murray Watt, Labor’s appointed One Nation hunter, was having a chat with Attorney-General George Brandis in Senate Estimates when he asked Brandis:

"Have you ever spoken to Mr Ashby about the costs he was ordered to pay resulting from his action against the former speaker Mr Peter Slipper?"

After a six second delay, Brandis replied:

"Um, not that I recall. Again, he might have raised the matter with me but I don’t have any specific recollection."

George fobbed off a few questions about how well he knew Ashby – I see him in meetings with Hanson and occasionally speak with him by phone if he answers it in the One Nation office, that’s it – before Watt asked:

"Just going back to Ashby’s legal costs, has anyone from your staff or office spoken to James Ashby regarding his legal costs?"

Maybe, only in passing, if so.

Then Watt asked if George know Ashby socially?

George allowed a four second pause to slip by before replying,

"The answer to your question is no, but I think before Christmas last year Mr Ashby and I might have had a glass of wine in my Brisbane office."

Watt asked:

"Do you remember what was discussed?"

Brandis:

"No. We would have been exchanging seasonal felicitations."

Watt merely sighed:

"Oh to have been a fly on that wall."

George sat back, confident of his position. It was supposed to be all over, but then Derryn Hinch piped up:

"The High Court, sitting as Court of Disputed Returns, handed down its verdict on former senator Rodney Cullerton on February 3. Can you explain why James Ashby, at the Watermark restaurant in Townsville on December 21 according to people who were at the table, James Ashby received a call from you. After he hung up he said that was Brandis, its official, Cullerton is out."

Brandis said he hadn’t seen that media report.

He didn’t recall that conversation,

"... but I do not dispute it either."

George said he had a firm opinion of the likely outcome and would have told anyone who asked. If Ashby had asked he would have told him too. So what?

Hinch continued:

"People who were there make it sound like this wasn’t just Senator Brandis Attorney General’s opinion, this was official that you knew Cullerton was gone and you were passing it on to One Nation. Do you recall the phone call with Ashby at the Watermark in 21 December?"

Brandis said he didn’t dispute Ashby was at the Watermark , but he didn’t know that.

Hinch again:

"Was Ashby just showing off when he said it was Brandis on the phone?"

George said he didn’t know where he was that day.

Radio wit that he is, Hinch barbed:

"I’m surprised you weren’t at the Watermark."

Then Estimates wrapped, all over for the day.

But two things had emerged.

Watt has a sniff the Libs are starting to be concerned about the Ashbygate costs issue. Negotiations between Ashby’s lawyers and the Commonwealth are dragging out and are yet to be finalised, so the quantum is not yet known. IA’s advice is that it’s around $1 million.

That’s on top of Ashby’s costs, which he himself put at around $3 million.

Ashby is not the kind of guy to enter a Faustian pact with the Libs without a guarantee against loss, but right now the Libs are financially skint and will struggle to fund their 2018 campaign.

The costs agreement is taking an awfully long time to resolve. It is just possible the Commonwealth is putting a handbrake on the final agreement to stretch out the Libs’ cashflow until they can scratch up the indemnity costs. Maybe borrow a few mill from Malcolm?

The second thing to surface is Brandis’ relationship with James. Private drinks in his office? Personal mobile number in his phone?

It’s all starting to sound very Christopher Pyne.

The lightning bolts – internal dissent and betrayal, electoral infractions and the Ghosts of Slipper’s past – are armed and ready to be hurled into the heart of One Nation.

Zeus stands ready atop the cloud.

Ross Jones is the author of 'Ashbygate: The Plot to Destroy Australia's Speaker'. 

You can follow Ross Jones on Twitter @RPZJones.

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