There’s at least one issue that seems to be engendering bipartisan support in Canberra at the moment: the “Allan Asher did a really stupid thing” platform.

Save for the Greens, that is. Bob Brown has said that he’d be ”appalled” if action was taken against the Commonwealth Ombudsman after it was revealed that he had furnished Greens MP Sarah Hanson-Young with a set of questions to ask him at estimates about a lack of funding for his office.

Asher has made it clear that his scripting of questions was prompted by concerns about the office’s under-resourcing, given the explosion of work as the number of people in immigration detention has dramatically grown, but he has subsequently apologised for the method with which he attempted to highlight the problem.

Now, as The AFR’s Laura Tingle reports today, “both sides of politics are wrestling with what should happen next, given the widespread view that Mr Asher’s actions have damaged the apparent independence of his office”.

Labor senator John Faulkner and Coalition senator Eric Abetz were right to question Asher’s wisdom — perception is everything when it comes to the independence of the office, and on this score, the idea that Asher was appealing to Hanson-Young for assistance and scripting her estimates questions looks terrible.

But there are more than perceptions at stake here. Asher’s actions also reflects a profound error of judgment. Using the processes of Parliament, such as committee hearings, to defend and advance the interests of one’s own agency is routine in Canberra. And, true, not every estimates question that is ever asked is invented within the offices of non-government senators. But Asher went well beyond normal practice to in effect attempt to undermine the effective functioning of a Senate committee. The Ombudsman was correct to apologise, but that is insufficient. His misjudgment was of sufficient magnitude that he has no alternative but to resign.

Peter Fray

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