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The tragedy of Ashby and Slipper: Act One

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After an unprecedented amount of research, Vince O'Grady starts a new series mapping out what really happened in Ashbygate.

Image: Bruce Keogh (facebook.com/bkrunsamock).

[Read ‘The tragedy of Ashby and Slipper’ Act Two | Act Three | Act Four | Act Five]

IT SEEMS my article ‘The alleged Peter Slipper cover-up’ has generated a lot of interest.

At first, I was astonished by this, but then when I really thought about it, it made sense; the story has all the ingredients of a best seller ― power, sex, intrigue and a few sub plots. Oh, and a good portion of manipulation and deviousness thrown in for good measure. Not to mention a good conspiracy theory.

Earlier this year, when the whole thing broke, I became absorbed by the intrigue of the “Slipper affair” and started to follow it more deeply. I live in Melbourne and I don’t know any of the players, so mine is a dispassionate look at the facts.

As part of my interest – and with the brilliant mentoring support of David Donovan, managing editor of Independent Australia – I commenced to read the vast amount of documentation placed on the Federal Court website about the case of James Hunter Ashby and the two respondents in the case — the Commonwealth of Australia; and Peter Slipper, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives.

At the end of a week of research, I ended up with a sixteen page high level timeline of the people involved in this saga. When they were involved and whether or not on the balance of probability, there was a plot by the Coalition to embarrass the Labor Party and to unseat them from Government.

I am not going to pre-empt my findings, but any good investigator has to have an hypothesis in mind.

My hypothesis was:

Is this scandal part of a Liberal Party plan akin to the Craig Thomson affair, but better concocted and baked than the abortive ‘Michael Kirby’ and ‘Utegate’ affairs?

I always like to know who is who in any story, so the first thing I did was to have a look at the individuals involved, commencing with Peter Slipper. There is nothing more infuriating, when reading a press story, than not knowing some basic facts. I was, in other words, setting the scene.

Dramatis Personae

Peter Slipper is the member for the Federal Electorate of Fisher, a seat on the Sunshine Coast just north of Brisbane in Queensland.

He held the seat first as a National Party MP, from 1984 to 1987. After a period out of Parliament, he held Fisher from 1993 until 2008 as a Liberal Party member. Following the merger of the Queensland branches of the National and Liberal Parties, he held the seat from 2008 until 2011 as an LNP member. Finally, from November 2011 – when, against the Coalition’s wishes, he became speaker in the House of Representatives – until the present, he has been an Independent.

In 1996, the Howard Liberal government gained power federally and, on 21 October 1998, Slipper was appointed to a newly created position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration. He remained as a parliamentary secretary until 22 October 2004 ― period of six years.

Following a time on the back bench, after the minority Gillard Government was elected on 28 September 2010, he was appointed deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and remained in that position until 24 November 2011, when he was appointed speaker of the House of Reps.

James Hunter Ashby is a 33 to 34 year old male. He appeared on the public record in the year 2002, when he was radio disk jockey in Newcastle. Some of his antics in Newcastle were described by Richard Clune in the Sunday Telegraph:

...radio DJ Paul Fidler said Mr Ashby was no stranger to harassment himself.

He said the political staffer had targeted him with a series of abusive phone calls when they worked at rival Newcastle radio stations in 2002.

Fidler, who was working at NEWFM under the moniker Jim Morrison at the time, said he was afraid to leave the house after Mr Ashby, then at NXFM, began to phone him with threats.

"Delusional - that's a word I'd bring up [to describe him]," Fidler told The Sunday Telegraph. "What he did wasn't real flash. I was fearful of leaving the house as I didn't know what was going on or who it was."

In one call he physically threatened Fidler, stating: "Next time I see you riding on your f ... ing bike I'll hit you, you idiot, all over the sloppy road you dumb prick."

In another call recorded by Fidler and used as evidence in court, Mr Ashby said: "F. .k it, if I was your mother I would have drowned you at birth."

Ashby pleaded guilty and was fined $2000 and bound over for 3 years.
Len Smith

After that, he apparently moved to Townsville, where he operated a printing business and, apparently, became proficient in making videos, as he claimed to have skills in media and communications.

In the middle of 2011, these skills – real or imagined – were enough to get him hired as the marketing and communications manager of Gowinta Farms, a mixed fruit growing business outside Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Gowinta was, and still is (despite now being in receivership) owned by Mr Len Smith, an enthusiastic LNP supporter.

Next character is Malcolm Thomas Brough. Mal, as he is commonly known, was an army officer from 1979 to 1987, before on 2 March 1996 becoming the MP for Longman ― then a new Federal electorate near Caboolture, north of Brisbane. He served as a Liberal Member for Longman until 2007, when he was defeated with a 10 per cent swing to Labor.

Brough’s persona is not clear of controversy, as Alan Ramsey’s account ‘The Brough and tumble of a cover up’ in the Sydney Morning Herald shows.

Along with nine other issues, the substance of Ramsey’s story is described by Chris Graham, managing editor of Tracker:

[vimeo 13907985]

In May 2006, Lateline broadcasted a story entitled ‘Sexual slavery reported in Indigenous community.’

It featured a witness who appeared with his face blacked out and his voice digitised, and backed earlier claims by Brough (and rubbished widely) that paedophile rings were rife in Aboriginal communities.

Lateline falsely described the man as an “anonymous youth worker” but it later emerged he was Gregory Andrews, an Assistant Secretary in Brough’s department.  His job was to advise the minister on issues of child abuse in Aboriginal communities.

Brough always denied knowledge of the appearance, but in later court proceedings it emerged his office was provided a written brief of what the bureaucrat planned to tell Lateline.

Mal Brough was then President of the Queensland Liberal Party and strongly opposed the merger of the Liberals with the Nationals, which apparently explains why he did not seek pre-selection for Longman at the 2010 election. That is now held by another LNP member, Wyatt Roy.

Malcolm Brough lives in Glasshouse Mountains, part of the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

So let’s go back to the narrative…

Mal Brough, however, had not quite finished with politics, because by 2011 his spat with the Liberal National Party had been pasted over and he was back into the LNP fold.

Alex Somlyay

As the Liberal Party knife and smear each other with gay abandon, the so-called knifing of Kevin Rudd suddenly looks very tame indeed.

So that has set the scene at the Federal level.

Now, who are the players at the State level?

After Ashby came to Beerwah to work he joined the LNP and became close to Mark McArdle, who is the State Member for Caloundra and the Minister for Energy and Water Supply. In the Federal Court documents tabled, his first text message to McArdle was on 27th May 2011. It is also the first text message in 256 pages of evidence in the Annexure submitted to the Court on 8 October 2012. According to these messages,they used to meet frequently for dinner. In some of his texts, Ashby offers McArdle dirt on issues which will embarrass the Bligh Labor Government. It seems certain that Ashby must have known him before that date, as he had McArdle’s phone number and introduced himself as if they had met before.

Ashby also knew Mal Brough through his LNP membership, and apparently met Peter Slipper for the first time on 29 July 2011, at a dinner at Slipper’s house with Bronwyn Bishop. It was after a function hosted by Len Smith at Gowinta farms. It appears that after that dinner, Slipper’s wife, Inge, was quite taken with Ashby, calling him a “scallywag” in a text the next day.

So, leading up to the 2010 Election, Slipper is being attacked by the Sunshine Coast Daily for his travel expenses.

Mal Brough has re-entered the political fray and is agitating again for a Federal Seat pre- selection (for the 2013 election).

James Ashby has joined the LNP and is beginning to associate with LNP Branch Members, State Members of Parliament and Federal Members of Parliament. It will later be revealed in his texts that he wanted to enter politics.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="115"] Mark McArdle[/caption]

Tony Abbott is defending his MP’s expenses claims ― including Peter Slippers.

The 2010 election takes place and the result hangs on a knife edge.

Between the time the Election is held and the formation of Government, the heavy hitters of the Liberal Party are out there telling the people of Australia all sorts of information.

Enter stage (extreme) right, Christopher Pyne. Again and again Pyne explains to the electorate why the Liberal National Party should form government.

“We got more votes,” he says. “We got more seats!”

Never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, the Liberal Party and the Labor Party got exactly the same number of seats and, in fact, as the voting went on, the Labor Party drew ahead marginally when the Electoral Commission posted their final result on the internet. In the end, Labor outpolled the Coalition by 30,528 votes. The result for all to see is on the Australian Electoral Commission website.

When the result was finally established, a minority Labor Government was formed, with the confidence of the Independents ― Andrew Wilkie,  Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and a Green, Adam Bandt.

The Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott must have really been annoyed by Peter Slipper agreeing to become deputy speaker in defiance of his candidate Bruce Scott.

Slipper may have agreed to this post because of the lack of LNP support for him in his home State, but Tony Abbott still needed him in the Parliament because of the way the seats fell. They were not happy with him though. He was seen as a rat.

During the period from election day to the formation of Government, there was an interesting process and promises by Abbott of a “…new kinder, gentler, polity”. However, it seems Abbott would have said anything to gain, power as demonstrated Tony Abbott’s dealings with Independent Tony Windsor in his attempt to form Government:

The Parliament was on a knife edge.

If Labor did anything against their written agreements with the Independents, they would lose Government. One of these agreements insisted on the pricing of carbon.

This was the political setting federally.  The coalition was three seats behind (Oakeshott, Wilkie, Windsor and Bandt), minus the Speaker Harry Jenkins. Potentially, Slipper was a renegade and they had to control this fall out to retain his vote, whilst also trying to persuade the Independents to drop their support for the Labor Government and send the people back to the polls.

Tony Abbott made statements throughout 2011 in support of Slipper.

In the background, Mal Brough was doing his job to get pre-selected in Slipper’s Electorate of Fisher and, on 3 September 2011, Mal Brough was elected president of the Fisher branch of the LNP, in direct opposition to Peter Slipper’s preferred candidate, Dr Greg Robinson.

On 31 August 2011, two days before this meeting, there were text messages between Ashby and Slipper, who were to travel together from Slipper’s office to the AGM of the Beerwah/Glasshouse LNP branch.

Meanwhile, Ashby is texting his mate Simon Ward from WIN TV (Message # 9501 on 2nd Sep at 7.05 am):

Hope u have cameras at today's FDC AGM in maleny. It's going to be interesting. Potential blood bath.

On the 4th September, 2011, Peter and Inge Slipper drove Ashby to the airport for an overseas trip.  By this time, clearly Ashby was considered a friend as well as a political ally.

The lift was instigated by Peter Slipper; Ashby accepted.

Back in August 2011, Ashby is working with Mark McArdle and the LNP in promoting McArdle.

Messages 9431, 9435, 9436, 9437 and 9455 shows an association with McArdle that involves McArdle’s personal email address being held by Ashby and him posting videos on McArdle’s behalf.

So, Ashby was quite close to McArdle and was to become closer still.

End of Act One?

Ashby has just gone overseas for three weeks from 4 September, 2011 — escorting the mother of Will Hughes, a wealthy friend of Ashby from the Sunshine Coast, around Europe. (More about Hughes on IA later.)

Ashby is friends with McArdle and Slipper, and has obviously met Brough, as well as McArdle’s wife Judy, who used to work for Slipper. According to texts in the evidence annexure, it appears McArdle hates Slipper.

In the next Act we will investigate events involving Brough, Ashby and Slipper, leading up to Slipper’s elevation to the Speakership – focussing on the decision of Ashby to actually and finally accept a job offer from Slipper, but also with more interaction between the main players — as well as introducing new players and information germane to the central hypothesis.

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