Speaker Peter Slipper is likely to emerge mostly unscathed despite what initially appeared to be devastatingly bad claims from a staffer, James Ashby, with a lurking possibility that his claims could engulf the Liberals in a seedy and Nixonian dirty tricks scandal of its own.
Sources familiar with the Speaker’s expense claim say that far from rorting his parliamentary travel entitlements with Cabcharges that his use of them, complained about by Ashby as apparently dodgy, will check out as legitimate, with many other MPs also using limousine services, some favouring them over the more expensive taxpayer-owned Comcar. It seems weird that a private limo service would substantially less than Comcar but we are reliably told that is the case and that some MPs prefer private operators as a result. This seems to be particularly the case with Queensland MPs. Sources say that all Slipper did, which might have prompted concern from Ashby who wasn’t familiar with the Speaker’s arrangement with a Sydney limo operator was provide the driver with Cabcharges for payment, which they insist tally up with official, and documented and diarised, engagements he had. Slipper, often lashed on expenses by his former internal party critics like nemesis Alex Somylay, is now reportedly extremely cautious and vigilant about the detail of these things. His friends are highly confident he will be utterly cleared in relation to them. Government sources certainly expect he’ll be reinstated once his innocence is established, which they think will be quite soon.
The sex harassment claims are messier, and while not of themselves job threatening, and will be personally embarrassing for the Speaker. His practice of allowing some staff members to save money by crashing at his place in Canberra was clearly not smart, sources say, and won’t continue.
However, there are dark mutterings about the James Ashby saga, which, if true, could create an enormous stink for the Coalition. The story goes like this:
That many in Liberal circles believed that Peter Slipper had entanglements with staff member or members in the past but they couldn’t prove anything. (VEXNEWS readers will recall our reporting of these rumours a long time ago)
That someone in the LNP convinced James Ashby – an openly gay and politically ambitious journalist/spin doctor – to work for Slipper with a view to digging up dirt on Slipper and acting in some kind of honey-trap, as it is referred to in espionage.
Ashby, who, astonishingly enough, at the time of publication is still an employee of the Speaker, has made his claims via a high-priced Sydney law firm Harmers that is a specialist in workplace law, often representing employers but also well-known for representing the complainant against Mark McInnes, the former CEO of David Jones, who was accused of trying to screw the crew.
It is believed that Ashby is not paying the firm himself, with some even speculating that he may be being induced and encouraged by Slipper’s foes in the LNP to make the claims, possibly with the promise of a job or some other benefit.
It also believed that Ashby covertly assisted a number of state LNP candidates during the recent Queensland election. Sources say the Speaker became aware of it, and was perfectly relaxed about it but was merely disappointed with his staffer that he hadn’t told him about it. Certainly it’s no secret Ashby is an LNP member.
Most probably it’s a coincidence, but it is interesting to note that HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson, on a seek-and-destroy mission against the government backbencher Craig Thomson, has very recently engaged the same Sydney-based lawyers to represent her in a typically quixotic Federal Court lawsuit calculated to seize power within her scandal-plagued HSUeast branch.
There is concern among some Canberra and Brisbane Liberals that Ashby is “flaky” and if he was put up by someone to infiltrate Slipper’s office to dig up dirt or entrap him in some kind of embarrassment that it could easily and spectacularly backfire if he feels disappointed about the outcome of his spectacular attack on the Speaker, either in terms of its effect on Slipper (he’ll most probably survive it) or on Ashby himself (he’ll almost certainly not stay in his job working for Slipper and might end up looking dirtier than Monica Lewinsky without actually doing anything between the sheets).
If Ashby acted alone, and is merely freely championing his rights at work, then certainly a carefully-timed ambush (with no attempt to privately raise the matter with Slipper or the Speaker’s office) is a strange way to go about resolving his issues, or achieving a result. There seems to be a lot more to this than meets the eye.
If Ashby was put up for the odious task of infiltrating the Speaker’s office to dig up dirt on him, then the first round has certainly been a success but the second round will entirely defend on Ashby keeping his mouth shut about whether any of Slipper’s political foes prompted him to take a job with Slipper and to adopt a shoot stealthily and dramatically from the grassy knoll strategy.
While this strategy was never likely to cost the government an extra vote (Slipper’s not likely to return to the Coalition), it has certainly again fed into the powerful perception that they are an unstable minority government, despite passing pretty much all of their own agenda through both houses. But the whole thing massively backfire on the Coalition if a Nixonian dirty tricks story is confirmed. Even the late former Nixon COS Chuck Colson, who passed away this past weekend, would have been impressed in his White House days with this one.
UPDATE: News Limited’s Steve Lewis all but admits knowing about James Ashby’s Federal Court case prior to it being filed last Friday. Lewis also offered in an interview with Ray Hadley to pro-actively help the Federal Police show what he says is Slipper’s abuse of public money. An unusual thing for a journalist to do but these are interesting times. Interestingly, sources say when Steve Lewis was the President of the UTS Student Union, he was notorious in the world of student politics for being the highest paid elected student official in all the land, who was also even provided with a union-funded car. He is now a vigilant defender of the public purse, God bless him.
TUESDAY UPDATE: Tony Abbott is denying Coalition staffers were involved in ‘preparing’ James Ashby’s complaint. Oh dear. His answer: “Not to my knowledge” sounded like a very lawyerly response of the kind the PM is usually heard uttering when the heat’s on. As we argue above, if the Coalition were involved with Ashby’s complaint and are trying to keep it hidden, then they’ll be left looking very tawdry and Nixonian indeed. Developing…