Peter Slipper failed to show up in court today for the ongoing s-xual harassment case brought by his former staffer James Ashby. He didn’t send a lawyer, either.

“He chose not to be represented. He should be here,” Federal Court judge Steven Rares snapped this morning, rejecting the suggestion he couldn’t afford representation. “He has a responsibility to the public to be here and to the Act to be here.”

Slipper’s responsibility to the public is a tangled web. He remains the speaker of the nation’s Parliament — “he gets paid,” as Justice Rares reminded the court to today — and a key figure to a government on a razor-thin margin.

Ashby has already won $50,000 from the Commonwealth, after Labor gave the OK for lawyers to settle that case. Slipper emailed the court requesting the personal suit go to mediation.

Where this leaves Slipper is unclear. But it does force Labor into the decision it’s been trying desperately hard not to make: does the speaker finally have to be sacked? If so, would Slipper quit Parliament given he can’t win re-election next year? How would he vote from the cross-benches? And how disastrous could all this be for a government that must build momentum ahead of an election?

The question of responsibility is very tangled, indeed.