A tumultuous year in Australian politics has ended with a court ruling that senior opposition figures conspired with a former political staffer to undermine Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government by bringing sexual harassment charges against the then parliamentary Speaker, Peter Slipper.
Mr Slipper boosted the government’s wafer-thin majority when he accepted Ms Gillard’s offer to resign from the conservative Liberal Party in exchange for the Speaker’s job a year ago. Then, last April, came the harassment allegations by his former staffer, James Ashby, complete with lurid claims of showers taken with the bathroom door open and neck massages that elicited moans of pleasure.
“Slippery Pete”, as he is known in Canberra, denied the allegations but was forced to stand aside while they were investigated. The case grew even murkier in October, when lewd text messages between him and Mr Ashby containing insulting remarks about female genitalia were released. Mr Slipper resigned, leaving the government reliant on the votes of five cross-benchers to achieve the slenderest majority.
Now, though, the Federal Court has thrown out the allegations, and made clear that it believes they were politically motivated. In a scathing judgement yesterday, Judge Steven Rares said he had “reached the firm conclusion that Mr Ashby’s predominant purpose for bringing these proceedings was to pursue a political attack against Mr Slipper”.
Even more damagingly, the judge linked a former Liberal Party minister, Mal Brough, to the plot to blacken Mr Slipper’s reputation and destabilise the government. Mr Brough has been pre-selected by the Liberals to stand in Mr Slipper’s Queensland seat at the next election, due late next year.
The Labor parliamentary secretary, Mark Dreyfus, said the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, and members of his frontbench had serious questions to answer about their involvement in the affair, which he called “an attempt to overthrow the government by sinister and … anti-democratic means”.
Mr Slipper pronounced himself “vindicated” by the judgement, and said the case had been “extremely traumatic” for him and his family. Mr Ashby plans to appeal.
The scandal thrust Ms Gillard into the international spotlight, where she found herself lauded as a feminist heroine. Criticised by Mr Abbott for defending Mr Slipper, she unleashed a 15-minute parliamentary attack on the opposition leader during which she listed multiple examples of his sexism and misogyny. The speech became a YouTube hit, viewed by nearly a quarter of a million people.