In the wilder fantasies of some government members at the moment, the James Ashby story will eventually explode and inflict massive damage on the Coalition and Tony Abbott, as if, having failed to land a blow on Tony Abbott for two-and-a-half years, Labor can relax and watch him be destroyed by his own handiwork. Comparisons to Godwin Grech and, with a considerable stretch from Anthony Albanese, Watergate, have been invoked.
Albanese continued to try to draw Abbott into the saga this morning, calling a media conference at Parliament House to demand the opposition leader reveal every last detail of the Coalition’s contact with Ashby.
The clumsy handling of the matter by a number of senior Coalition figures over how many had met with Ashby — particularly Christopher Pyne, whose normally sharp memory seems to have started playing tricks on him in relation to his dealings with Ashby — gives a patina of credibility to Albanese’s “who knew what and when” demands.
But alas for Labor, the Ashby saga has little in common with Godwin Grech. Abbott has been quick to accuse the government of sleaze over Craig Thomson and Slipper, but he hasn’t made dramatic claims of prime ministerial corruption based on the word of one mentally fragile individual, like his predecessor did. Indeed, Abbott has preferred to let others, like Pyne, carry much of the attack on the government, a lesson he presumably acquired from watching Malcolm Turnbull lead with his chin on “Utegate”.
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While it won’t have much impact on Abbott’s political future, it’s already done a pretty fair job of wrecking Mal Brough’s return to politics.
Twice now Brough has been revealed as having misled the public over his role in the affair. The first time was in early May when, in the aftermath of Fairfax’s Jessica Wright outing him as having met with Ashby, he arranged a tell-all explanation to The Australian, complete with photo shoot with his wife, to explain he’d met with Ashby three times and had only spoken to a small number of trusted legal advisers about the matter, and not anyone else in the Coalition or LNP.
That marked a change from his position of just a few days earlier, that claims he was aware of the legal action beforehand were “nonsense”.
We now know, courtesy of yesterday’s document release by the Federal Court, that he was misleading the public again with his claims to The Oz, and was a key player in the co-ordination of what appears to have been a campaign to damage Slipper, trying to arrange a job within the LNP for another disaffected Slipper staffer, Karen Doane. Ashby is also alleged to have emailed Brough with confidential material from Slipper’s diary.
What’s bizarre about Brough’s involvement is that it was wholly unnecessary. Brough has — or had — a lock on preselection for Fisher. He was guaranteed to re-enter federal politics at the next election. But the route of a man once touted as leadership material since he lost Longman in 2007 has been a circuitous one. He led Liberal moderate resistance to the establishment of the LNP by the Queensland Nationals (who were aided by Queensland Liberal conservatives led by Santo Santoro, who ironically now finds himself a target of the man who bankrolled the merger, Clive Palmer). He thus became the highest profile casualty of the merger — Lawrence Springborg mockingly demanded to know “where’s Mal” when the merger was approved.
Brough moved to Melbourne to lick his wounds but managed to overcome his anger and join the party he swore he’d never go near in 2010, targeting Slipper’s seat (perhaps to the point of obsession) and rebuilding relations with at least some of the LNP hierarchy.
Now he’s put all of that in danger with a remarkable display of poor judgment in not merely becoming involved in a campaign to damage Slipper — who could always be relied upon to damage himself, regardless of who else was trying — but then lying about it publicly. Even if he returns to politics, he’s damaged goods, and the former minister may find his stint on the backbench an extended one under a Coalition government.
The Liberals have had a fair infusion of talent since Brough was last in Parliament, and most of the people in the queue ahead of him have been smart enough to keep away from the sort of thing Brough now finds himself embroiled in.