Slipper saga not quite Watergate

AUSTRALIA'S Watergate? Well, probably not.

Anthony Albanese and Mike Kelly are getting ahead of themselves in comparing the Ashby-Brough fiasco with the criminal conspiracy that ultimately brought down the most powerful man on earth.

Although the tragic farce surrounding Peter Slipper has been deceitful, treacherous, vicious, totally unethical and immeasurably sleazy, it is unlikely to have the earth-shaking consequences of its American predecessor.

But having said that, it should be noted that both affairs went beyond what would normally be condoned by society, or even the law. Watergate began with an actual crime, the break-in and robbery at the headquarters of the Democrat Party. James Ashby deliberately abstracted the contents of Slipper's private diary and sent them to his political opponent. This has not yet resulted in charges being laid, but the case has a way to run yet.

Even so, ask the cynics among the political insiders, the media and large sections of the public, so what?

So a bunch of politicians and their mates indulged in a conspiracy - well, isn't that what politicians do? Run plots against their enemies and rivals (the difference purely one of terminology)? Labor Party politics is based on unedifying factional power plays and even Malcolm Turnbull, that model of Liberal rectitude, masterminded the mother of all branch stacks to gain preselection in his seat of Wentworth over the incumbent Peter King.

Tony Abbott's career has been littered with conspiracies: he was the one who hawked stories of Cheryl Kernot's sex life around the press gallery and memorably intrigued with Peter Coleman and Piers Akerman to destroy Pauline Hanson. Surely the only sin is in getting caught?

But while that is unfortunately true of Australian politics up to a point, there was one big difference in the current case, and that is that it involved the courts. Politicians are expected to play their games on their own turf, and not attempt to encroach on the judicial system. In this context it is noteworthy that nearly all those mentioned in the case - Peter Slipper, James Ashby, Slipper aide Karen Doane, Mal Brough, L-NP president Bruce McIver, state minister Mark McArdle, David Russell QC, Clive Palmer - are Queenslanders.

As Joh Bjelke-Petersen repeatedly showed, he and his fellow banana benders have always had a problem with the doctrine of the separation of powers, the inviolable constitutional premise which guarantees that the three arms of government - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary - all have their distinct and independent role and none of them may interfere with the other two.

As soon as Ashby and his co-conspirators crossed that line by lodging a statement of claim in the Federal Court, they were taking on forces over which they had no control and ones which were instinctively sceptical about political game-playing, and who would deeply resent any attempt to use them as part of it.

Judge Steven Rares (who is not a Queenslander) made no secret of his unhappiness at being dragged into what he saw as an abuse of process by both the plaintiff and his legal-public relations team. Any merit the case may have had, he expostulated, had been overwhelmed by the real motives, which were purely political. Coming from a seasoned and respected judge, there could hardly have been a more comprehensive put-down.

And Rares reserved some of his harshest criticism for Ashby's legal guru, the very high-profile Michael Harmer, for what he termed "scandalous" conduct of the case. Harmer, predictably, rejected the rebuke and is apparently encouraging Ashby to lodge and appeal against the judgment. This prospect is providing a useful shield for opposition, and in particular Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, all of whom were, according to a gleeful government, heavily involved in the conspiracy from the beginning.

But the idea of an appeal has also amplified the cries of that old political poser: "Where's the money coming from?" which, one suspects, is the last question Ashby will want to answer, because it is hardly likely to be from his own pockets. Harmer and his pricey PR sidekick Anthony McClellan apparently appeared on a no-win, no-fee basis, so that's okay - for the moment. But the barristers didn't and Rares has ordered Ashby to pay Slipper's costs as well.

Ashby has the $50,000 he got from the Commonwealth prematurely settling the case to fall back on, but even if that is enough to pay his current expenses, it certainly won't cover an appeal; which is where his personal Catch 22 comes in.

Ashby undoubtedly has friends with money: two of the most prominent are the Liberal Party of Australia and News Ltd. But for either of those to produce a cheque book would be an admission that Rares was quite right - the whole thing is indeed a political conspiracy, a stitch-up to hurt Slipper, advantage Brough and boost Tony Abbott's quest for an election.

Topics:  opinion

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