There have been no winners from the James Ashby v Peter Slipper sexual harassment case, which was thrown out of the Federal Court this morning. Crikey was in court for the verdict.
Finally, what many suspected has been confirmed: the court action brought against former speaker Peter Slipper was a political conspiracy to destroy him by the Queensland Liberal-National Party, and that James Ashby was a small but perfectly formed Trojan Horse who was wheeled into Slipper’s office to blow it up.
The Federal Court’s Justice Steven Rares this morning found that the s-xual harassment proceedings brought by Ashby earlier this year were an “abuse of the process of the court” and that the original application was used by Ashby “for the predominant purpose of causing significant public, reputational and political damage to Mr Slipper”.
“To allow these proceedings to remain in the Court would bring the administration of justice into disrepute among right-thinking people and would be manifestly unfair to Mr Slipper,” Rares found.
He found “a party cannot be allowed to misuse the Court’s process by including scandalous and damaging allegations, knowing that they would receive very significant media coverage, and then seek to regularise his, her or its pleading by subsequently abandoning those claims”.
Justice Rares goes on to say that the court must always be available to hear bona fide claims of s-xual harassment. But Ashby’s “pre-dominant purpose in bringing the proceedings was not a proper one”. He also ordered Ashby to pay all of the costs of the proceeding, which will be substantial.
Ashby, who sat impassively during the reading of the judgment in the Sydney court, said afterwards he would appeal: “With my lawyers we will study the judgment in detail, but at this stage we intend to appeal this regrettable decision.”
There can be no winners out this situation, including the taxpayers of Australia, who paid out $50,000 to Ashby for his s-xual harassment claims only recently. The roots of the issue go back to the Queensland Liberal and National parties, whose political disunity now resemble a rather uninteresting, tropical version of The Leopard.
No one comes out of this action looking good. Slipper, otherwise known as “Slippery Pete”, is a political turncoat who has sent a series of text messages which slandered every member of the female gender and some bivalves. Ashby, whose qualifications for employment stemmed from his experience at a Queensland strawberry farm, appears to be a patsy who was manipulated.
And Mal Brough, a former minister in the Howard government, seems to have adopted Graham Richardson’s “whatever it takes” mantra to getting back into politics. The fact that this has now all become public is testament to the political ineptitude of the Queensland LNP; if the NSW ALP does you over, it rarely sees the light of day. It appears that everyone had a secret agenda, or what my mother would call “lacking a strong moral compass.”
According to the judgment, once Slipper accepted the role as speaker of the House of Representatives in late 2011 he became a marked man. The hung Parliament has led to some strange alliances, and once the ALP realised that it could no longer accede to Andrew Wilkie’s demands on poker machines, it started hunting for an alternative.
Enter Slipper, who represented the Queensland seat of Fisher as a Liberal and a National from 1993, and whose idiosyncratic personal issues were well-known in Canberra. When the PM recruited Slipper in 2011, she bought herself some breathing space by eliminating his Coalition vote.
At the time Slipper took the speaker’s chair, mace and substantial allowance, he was facing a possible challenge for his seat from Brough, who was desperate to get back into Parliament after being turfed out in the 2007 Ruddslide.
In the action, Ashby alleged Slipper had s-xually harassed him verbally, in text messages (aka “s-xting”) and by stroking his arm. He also alleged Slipper had had a consensual s-xual relationship with a young male staff member in 2003 and recorded an encounter with him on video. The final allegation was Ashby had been forced to watch Slipper sign multiple Cabcharge vouchers and hand them to the Comcar driver, and that Ashby intended to report this to the AFP.
Slipper alleged that Ashby had brought the proceedings in combination with one or more of Karen Doane (a co-worker on Slipper’s staff), Brough, News Limited journalist Steve Lewis, media consultant Anthony McClennan and Harmers Workplace Lawyers, for an improper purpose. That purpose was to form part of a political attack on Slipper to aid the LNP and/or Brough so that Ashby and Doane could get new jobs in the LNP.
About 270 pages of Ashby’s text messages were submitted, some of which included the implication that Slipper wanted to have a closer relationship. Ashby appears to have rebuffed this suggestion, but the next day has gone to see Mark McArdle, a senior frontbencher in the then Queensland state LNP opposition.
“There was no hint … of Mr Ashby feeling upset as a result of s-xual harassment. Rather those texts suggested that he was planning to use the record of his texts with Mr Slipper to empower others in a way that would affect the balance of power in the House of Representatives. Mr Ashby asked one friend whether his contemplated action would result in his being ‘rewarded or condemned’,” the judge said.
The judgment says that straight after the March 24 Queensland state election, which was won by the LNP, Ashby told McArdle he had decided to press ahead with what they had talked about. Ashby and Doane made contact with Lewis. ”Previously, Mr Ashby and Mr Slipper had expressed very hostile feelings to one another about both Mr Brough and Mr Lewis,” it states.
Ashby and Doane got down to work. By March 29 they were supplying Brough and Lewis with copies of Slipper’s diary entries, and Brough was helping them with job opportunities within the LNP. Lewis got his front-page stories and Brough discussed with Ashby the hiring of s-xual harassment experts Harmers as his lawyers. Justice Rares said:
“Mr Lewis appears to have pursued, enthusiastically, the stories potentially available to him based on Mr Ashby’s and Ms Doane’s information. However, I am not satisfied that Mr Lewis shared with them the purpose of advancing the political interests of Mr Brough or the LNP or of aiding Mr Ashby or Ms Doane in their future prospects of advancement or preferment. It is more likely that Mr Lewis was focused on obtaining good copy for stories to sell newspapers.”
However, Rares dismissed News Ltd’s argument that Lewis’ famous “We will get him” text did not refer to Slipper. News had argued the text referred to a Commonwealth car driver.
The judge concluded that “the evidence established that Mr Ashby acted in combination with Ms Doane and Mr Brough when commencing the proceedings in order to advance the interests of the LNP and Mr Brough … Mr Ashby and Ms Doane set out to use the proceedings as part of their means to enhance or promote their prospects of advancement or preferment by the LNP, including using Mr Brough to assist them in doing so.”
Slipper did not appear in court this morning but was represented by Simon Berry, a Sydney partner at Berrry Buddle Wilkins solicitors. Berry said outside the hearing room that was acting as “amicus curiae” or a friend of the court, because he had not yet been formally engaged. He said he would speak to Slipper to see if he would make a statement but, as Crikey went to deadline, no statement had been made.