The scandal that won’t die is crashing head-on into the 2016 election campaign, as the Australian Federal Police gets permission to access the phone and text records of former Peter Slipper staffer James Ashby.

LNP member Mal Brough resigned from the ministry, and then from Parliament late last year, after the Australian Federal Police indicated it was investigating the member for Fisher for his role in the procurement of former independent speaker Peter Slipper’s diary in 2012.

As part of his sexual harassment case against Slipper in 2012, Ashby submitted lewd text messages as evidence alleging Slipper had sexually harassed him. But now that evidence could very well be used against Ashby, Brough, and potentially even Turnbull government assistant minister Wyatt Roy as part of an Australian Federal Police investigation into the matter.

Ashby’s case was rejected by the court, and Ashby dropped plans to appeal the decision in 2014. Ashby’s law firm attempted to get Slipper to pay the costs of the appeal, but this was rejected by the full Federal Court in April. Justice Geoffrey Flick, in his decision today, noted that the case was “not so easily or quickly resolved”:

“It otherwise may have been hoped that the April 2016 Full Court decision was the last involvement of this Court arising out of the original dispute between Messrs Ashby and Slipper. But any such hope was shattered when in April 2016 the Commonwealth filed an Interlocutory Application.”

Earlier this month the AFP applied to the Federal Court to access the text messages from Ashby’s phone, claiming that without the messages, there was insufficient evidence available to complete the investigation. The AFP has the permission of both Slipper and Ashby to access the text messages as part of the investigation.

The AFP would need a warrant to obtain the content of the text messages if it decided to use its powers to access texts directly from the telecommunications companies providing services to Brough, Slipper, and Ashby, but due to the age of the case, the text messages are no longer held by the telcos, and Ashby and Brough no longer have them on their phones. The AFP said in court, earlier this month, that Brough no longer had the phone he used to text Ashby, and Ashby no longer had the text messages himself.

Flick today granted the AFP access to two discs worth of phone records from the case. Flick noted that both Ashby and Slipper had consented to their release, and there was “a legitimate public interest” in releasing the discs to the AFP to assist in determining whether there had been an unlawful disclosure of Slipper’s diary.

It’s unclear when the Australian Federal Police will complete its investigation, and indeed whether charges will be laid against any of the key players. When asked about the case in a Senate estimates hearing earlier this month AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin said that the majority of the investigation had been completed, but there was still work to be done:

“However, there are still a couple of significant avenues of inquiry that we are following … In terms of the links of the investigation, we are coming to the conclusion of the investigation, but we cannot conclude just yet.”

Colvin said the AFP would not consider whether charges would be laid until all the information had been assessed. He did admit the AFP had executed a search warrant on the Department of Parliamentary Services to “obtain material in relation to the investigation” on parliamentary computers but it was not a search of an MP’s office.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey