The Mal Brough trough and the James Ashby money tree

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It doesn’t matter how serious the allegations are against Mal Brough, somehow he seems to be able to shrug them off and walk away smiling. Managing editor David Donovan reports.

Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott, Bill Glasson and a small business owner on the campaign trail in Griffith on the day of #menugate: 28 March 2013.
(From left) Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott, Bill Glasson and a Morningside small business owner on the campaign trail in Griffith  just before #Menugate. (Image courtesy Courier-Mail.)

On Wednesday last week, I had the chance to drive the Ashbygate Trust’s private investigator around the Sunshine Coast as he spoke to people and took photographs and visited locations. I had a great time.

It was fun. The PI was a surprisingly cheerful and personable bloke; good company, not a terse tough guy like you see in movies. And my former stomping ground, the Sunshine Coast ‒ especially the scenic hinterland above the Glasshouse Mountains ‒ is surely one of the most pleasant and picturesque parts of the country to traverse. It was more than that, though, of course. It was interesting to see a professional investigator in action and quite gobsmacking to see him make contact with James Ashby … but we’ll talk about all that further down the track.

Here, I want to talk about something far less specific, but no less important.

Sitting at home in Surfers Paradise ‒ a week after my “day out” ‒ I am still thinking about a single conundrum that’s long puzzled me and which was brought home to me again last Wednesday...

But let me just step back from that for a minute and put you a bit more in the frame.

Rip off! The original Hilary Clinto KFC meme.
The original Hillary Clinton KFC meme.

Last Wednesday, if you might recall, was the day the #Menugate scandal hit the airwaves. You know, the short-lived uproar over the 28 March fundraiser for Mal Brough, where a cigar-toting restaurateur called Joe Richards gained notoriety by plagiarising an old Hillary Clinton trope to mock the Australian prime minister’s breasts, thighs and ‒ yes, he really did ‒ her vagina.

Classy stuff from Brough’s backers…

Old Mal was at the R&R bar and café that night, he admitted ― but he never saw the menu. Hell no! He just apologised because, well, that’s just what people do these days — whether they do something wrong or not.

Such sincerity, Mal.

And ‒ what a developing story ‒ as I drove back to Surfers that night, I sat transfixed listening to ABC Local Radio breathlessly announce that the menu was all just a misunderstanding — a harmless father and son joke produced by Joe Richards for his son, which had never found its way out of the kitchen.

Menu at a Liberal Party fundraiser.
The mysterious menu that so few people saw that it somehow found its way onto Facebook.

My day was brought into quick relief. A quick glance at the menu published on IA by me that morning showed to me, quite clearly, that it had been professionally printed ― but this was of no interest to ABC Radio, who accepted Joe’s 11th hour mea culpa without blinking once. And presumably, the menu was so funny, the waiting staff had memorised it so that the guests didn’t need to see it.

And so Brough was off the hook yet again.

With investigative skills like those displayed on #menugate by the ABC, there is clearly no need for a specialised investigative outfit like IA

(Nevertheless, if you are a member of the R&R waiting staff, please feel free to contact me any time ― click here to email.)

Interestingly, Tony Abbott was campaigning with LNP candidate Dr Bill Glasson in Brisbane that same day — along with Joe Hockey and others. Was Abbott also at R&R that night, also oblivious to misogynist menus? I don’t know ― but it would be interesting to know…

So, #Menugate happened and we went to Brough’s office facilities at Buddina ― two stores down from the Fisher electorate incumbent, Peter Slipper. When we got there, late in the afternoon, the first thing we saw was a Channel 7  camera crew set up in the carpark, with an unmanned camera on a tripod trained on Brough’s office ― just in case Brough would show up, presumably.


We pulled up, we got out and we took it all in ― including the tiny sporty blue Brough stickered car with the “Sue” number-plates. Brough’s wife is called Sue. We wandered into Slipper’s office and had a chat with Michelle and handed over our cards. We walked out and the PI wandered into Brough’s office. I went into Red Rooster next door. The investigator spoke to some nice middle-aged bloke, who said Brough wasn’t there. I bought some chips. I sat outside eating them; meanwhile, somehow, the professional investigator took a picture of Brough’s whiteboard.

Mal wasn’t going to show his face at his office that day ― we both knew that.

The PI and I wandered back towards the highway to get a wide shot and take some photos of the scene ― what else was there to do? The PI loved the picture he took of the big Brough roadside hoarding, with the little Chinese restaurant clapboard beneath it offering a $12 special:


It said something to me too — but something different.

It made me question, not for the first time, who is footing the bills for Mal Brough. And, indeed, who is paying the ferryman for James Ashby, for his legal team, for his goddamn PR bloke? How could a 32-year-old former political staffer from Beerwah possibly afford such largesse?

As I stood on the nature strip and looked down at Brough’s office ‒ at the street signs, the car with the personalised number plates, the paid staffer, and the full sky blue Brough paint job ‒ I could smell the stench of money seeping out from Brough’s campaign. I’m an accountant by trade and so I know money. My own brother stood for a seat for the Liberals in 2010 and so I know how much campaigns cost. I know that, in the normal run of things, unelected candidates don’t have their own offices, or huge billboards, or company cars, or staffers. In the normal run of things, they can barely afford to print their own how-to-vote cards. All this … stuff was not paid for by Brough ‒ who hasn’t worked a day since 2007, as far as we can tell ‒ or his wife, who is a hairdresser ‒ but by somebody, or a group of somebodies, who really want Brough to be elected ― or maybe need him to be.

It seems that Brough has links with the local developer crowd that saw former Sunshine Coast Daily editor Mark Jamieson elected at the local mayor and faced investigation by the Federal Police over allegations he bribed Michael Bloyce to step aside.

Nothing was proven, of course. But even if smoke betokened fire, I can’t see what advantage it would be to local interests to have a friendly Federal MP elected. Something is missing; there is something more to all of this.

Brough has been subject to incessant controversy even before he was pre-selected, which would have been enough for any normal candidate to lose any backing they had. But he powered through all that and was pre-selected anyway — easily.

The Ashbygate scandal came along and we have shown that Brough lied through his teeth about his involvement with Ashby and others to bring Slipper down. Our view was endorsed by the Federal Court Judge, Justice Rares, in this late last year ― when he found Brough was part of a “combination”, with James Ashby, Karen Doane and others, to bring down the Government.

This, you might have thought, would have been more than enough to finish Brough as a potential political candidate ― but, despite the fallout, Abbott and the party machine stood resolutely behind him again.



And then there was Menugate and we are back to Wednesday last week, and again there were calls for Brough to be disendorsed ― but, again, Abbott spoke some mealy-mouthed words and a patsy took the fall and Mal sailed on blithely irregardless.

I sit here the next Wednesday noting the power of money and the utter determination of someone or someones to see a certain man elected in Fisher … but still I don’t quite know why or who.

Why are some unknown people spending so much money to ensure Mal Brough is elected? Why is Abbott and the LNP prepared to burn as much political capital as is necessary to ensure he is ensconced in the seat of Fisher? And why was it so important to set up Peter Slipper and totally destroy him?

Maybe I am wrong, but I smell something bad; the stench from this affair is simply overpowering. I believe there is something very unpleasant bubbling away behind the scenes, just out of sight, making several people go to extraordinary lengths just to see one man placed in a single parliamentary seat amongst 150.

But what is it?


(Click here to access IA's full Ashbygate investigation.)

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