A reality check on the Peter Slipper ‘scandal’

April 23, 2012

It’s not exactly news by now that Peter Slipper has stepped down from his Parliamentary role as Speaker. That much is clear – but that’s where the clarity ends, and the obfuscation, spin, accusations and general idiocy begin.

So let’s take a look – and a bit of a reality check – at what we actually have before us.

We have a compensation complaint made by James Ashby, a former staffer for Slipper, and lodged with the Federal Court, that alleges Slipper handed him blank Cabcharge vouchers for personal use. That’s an allegation of fraud, a criminal offence.

That complaint also alleges a raft of sexual harassment claims that would do any Hollywood thriller proud. Ashby claims that Slipper only hired him in order to pursue a sexual relationship, repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances, and even that Slipper asked him for a massage – which he provided – and responded to it in a sexual way.

Along with this Ashby claims that Slipper’s alleged behaviour was known about as far back as 2003 (and that there is video evidence of this), and that there was a cover-up by the then Howard government. For this, he is suing the Commonwealth, claiming that it did not provide a safe workplace.

The accusations of fraud – and, now, misuse of other entitlements – are under investigation from the Finance Ministry. The Australian Federal Police confirmed it was notified, and would ‘assess’ the claims.

Slipper denied – strenuously denied – all of it. Nonetheless, he stepped aside from his role as Speaker, saying that he believed that was appropriate pending the outcome of those investigations.

Ugly, right?

But let’s get a few things straight.

No criminal charges of fraud have been filed to date. (Not for lack of urging on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s part, mind you – it really seems as though he believes the Australian Federal Police as his to order around.)

No criminal charges of sexual offences have been filed to date, despite some of the accusations potentially falling under stalking and breaches of the Telecommunications Act.

There is no formal investigation being undertaken by the Federal Police. Their spokesperson has confirmed only that ‘the AFP is aware of the new allegations of fraud and will be taking action to assess that information’.

No allegations have even come before the Court, let alone been proven. Documents were lodged. That’s it so far.

Given all of this, Slipper is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence. There’s no question about it. Abbott and his colleagues should not be out there referring to these matters as though they were beyond question. In particular, his Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis, who is always so quick to remind us that he is a qualified lawyer (and so quick to forget that so is the Prime Minister), should be the first to remind his own party of this fact.

Oh, Abbott’s clever enough to avoid saying anything that’s actually defamatory. He talks about the government, not the man – but no one can mistake the message. It’s ‘tawdry’. It’s ‘squalid’. The government should ‘die of shame’. And let’s not forget the ‘sleazy’ deal made to elevate Slipper to the Speakership. The language is clear – it’s the language of gutter sexuality.

And the media is quite happy to go with it. It’s a ‘scandal’. Some are even happily adopting Abbott’s actual language – Paul Sheehan in the Sydney Morning Herald seems to like the word ‘tawdry’. A few moments ago, Channel Ten asked itself, ‘How did Labor not know who it was getting into bed with?’ (my italics) All the focus is on the sexual allegations, even if only as metaphor.

(And just by the way, media – what’s with the constant repetition of ‘a male staffer’? We can all see Ashby’s male. We know his name, and it’s not ambiguous. Why do you keep reminding us of his gender? Could it be that you think you can drum up a bit more outrage, make it more ‘dirty’ or ‘disgusting’, by focusing on alleged sexual behaviour between two men? Perish the thought.)

It’s worth repeating. Slipper did not stand down because of civil complaints of sexual harassment. He stood down pending the outcome of investigations into alleged financial impropriety.

It wasn’t required of him – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time a Parliamentarian continued to serve while his use of entitlements was under investigation – but he judged it the proper thing to do.

That’s not good enough for the Coalition, apparently. Christopher Pyne wants Slipper to be ‘suspended’ until the civil allegations are also resolved. Never mind that when former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and former Education Minister Michael Wooldridge were involved in civil actions – in Turnbull’s case, for hundreds of millions of dollars – both continued to serve in the Parliament.

Of course, there’s politics at the heart of all this. It’s as though someone wrapped the whole issue up in a big bow and handed it straight to the Coalition. With Slipper stepping down, the government returns to its previous one-seat majority. This won’t make it impossible to pass legislation – the best the Coalition could likely hope for is a tied vote, which would be resolved by Deputy Speaker (and Labor MP) Anna Burke – but it does give Abbott even more ammunition for his tried-and-tested diatribes against minority government.

(Always carefully failing to mention that any Coalition government would also be a minority, of course. That’s what happens when four different parties decide to work together.)

Abbott says he’s unlikely to try for a no-confidence motion when Parliament resumes on May 8. He says he doesn’t do such things ‘lightly’ – but that rings rather oddly against his other assertions. He’s claimed that ‘the strength of the whole democratic process relies essentially on the good name of the Speaker’s office’. If so, why isn’t he rushing to place a no-confidence motion on the Parliamentary agenda, and making his case to the Independents and Adam Bandt? Surely that would be the only appropriate, and responsible action?

Or could it be that Abbott won’t even try because he knows such a motion would fail? Perhaps he realises that he’s gained a reputation as the Opposition Leader Who Cried Wolf for his many attempts to censure the government (now around 50) for everything from legislating a price on carbon to allegedly bringing Australia to the point of financial ruin. No-confidence motions are traditionally incredibly serious – you just don’t attempt them unless the situation is urgent and potentially threatens the Parliament.

But then, censure motions are also supposed to be used only for serious purposes. Abbott’s made that into a joke – to the point where people now informally bet on what time he’ll move his next one. Perhaps now he’s reaping the consequences of that.

But back to Peter Slipper, and the allegations against him.

In December 2010, I wrote about the arrest of Julian Assange. At the time, I commented on the storm of accusations of ‘conspiracy’ that surrounded this issue. There was a rock-solid belief that Assange was little more than the victim of what amounted to a multi-national conspiracy designed to bring down Wikileaks – that the allegations made against him, and contained in the Interpol warrant under which he was arrested, were entirely fabricated. There was no evidence to suggest that this was the case at all – what we had instead was an appalling outbreak of rape apologism and ‘blame the victim’ mentality aimed at the two women involved in the complaint.

And this belief wasn’t confined to any one area, either. Mainstream media, politicians, bloggers, tweeters, Facebook users – the outcry was amazing. Leaving aside any question of Assange’s guilt or innocence (which is for a court to decide, if the cases ever come to trial), and leaving aside the question of conspiracy, one thing united these people – their absolute adherence to the presumption of innocence.

Assange is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But – and here’s the thing – we’re not seeing the same courtesy being extended to Peter Slipper. Mainstream media have all but convicted him of being a serial sexual predator. Opposition politicians likewise skate right up to the edge of a defamation suit. And as for social and new media – well, some of what’s being said doesn’t bear repeating. Dip a toe into the #auspol thread on Twitter if you’re feeling particularly like being revolted.

The reminder today that Slipper is an Anglican priest only added fuel to the more vicious of these commenters. Of course the allegations must be true, right? Everyone knows that priests abuse children, so Slipper must be guilty.

Yes, it really is that ugly.

What it comes down to is this: Peter Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He is entitled not to have his reputation destroyed. He is entitled to expect that any and all investigations into his alleged conduct will not be subject to political pressure, if not outright interference. In short, he is entitled to the same rights as every other citizen of Australia.

If – and I stress if – investigations conclude that he is guilty of misconduct, or a court finds him guilty of fraud, or sexual harassment – then he will pay the appropriate penalty. Until that time, he is an innocent man, and it’s about time organisations like the Opposition and News Ltd started remembering that.

The only truly shameful thing about this entire business is that anyone should have to point that out.

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Nothing to apologise for, Mr Andrews?

December 22, 2010

Dr Mohammed Haneef is an innocent man. He is an Indian citizen who came to Australia to pursue his medical career – and his life as a medical registrar at Gold Coast Hospital was abruptly shattered in 2007 by a series of events that saw him incarcerated, victimised and demonised. Presiding over that whole affair was then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews.

Three years later, Dr Haneef returned to Australia to seek compensation for loss of wages, the damage to his reputation and the personal suffering he was forced to endure. Today, he reached a settlement with government solicitors – an undisclosed amount, of course, but one with which Haneef seemed very happy.

Talking to the media afterwards, Haneef stated that he would like to visit Australia again to see friends and relatives. He also said he would consider seeking re-employment at Gold Coast Hospital. In light of what he went through, that is truly remarkable.

Inevitably, the question arose within the commentariat: should Kevin Andrews apologise for Dr Haneef’s treatment? Tim Smith, Councillor for the City of Stonnington, seemed outraged at the very idea. Kevin Andrews is an honourable man, he protested. He had some bad advice, but he did what he thought was right. There is literally nothing for which an apology is due.

Nothing to apologise for?

Let’s set the Wayback Machine for July 2, 2007, and see.

First the Federal Police arrest Dr Mohamed Haneef as he was leaving the country to return to India to visit his wife and newborn daughter.

They hold him for over 200 hours before finally charging him with giving his mobile SIM card to a cousin who allegedly blew up a car at Glasgow Airport. The card, of course, was recovered from the wreck. This is, mind you, not an intentional support of terrorism, but a ‘reckless act’ … whatever that means. It’s also, it seems, suspicious that Dr Haneef only bought a one-way ticket.

Then the Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, revokes Haneef’s visa on ‘character’ grounds, i.e. that he associates with known terrorists. This, of course, refers to his cousin. Never mind that the British authorities have decided, by this time, that said cousin is not only not a known terrorist, he’s not even a suspected terrorist. Such details are unimportant, apparently – and Haneef is headed for a detention centre pending deportation – mind you, booting him out of the country will come after they’ve convicted him.

As the farce grinds on, whoops! The AFP realise that the SIM Card of Doom was not found in the wreck at Glasgow Airport, but seized in evidence from Liverpool – 300 km away. They also realise that a particular piece of evidence used to make the initial allegations is, in fact, nothing of the kind. This ‘evidence’ is supposedly Haneef’s diary, which he consistently denies as being anything to do with him. In fact, the Australian police were presenting their own notes to the doctor, and insisting that he explain them. Of course, he can’t.

Enter the Director of Public Prosecutions. He steps in to check out everything, and lo and behold! – suddenly Haneef is released on July 27. Amazingly, there is no evidence to link Haneef with terrorist groups, evil SIM cards or, indeed, Osama bin Ladin (who, I’m sure, would have made an appearance eventually). That should be the end of it, but instead Haneef heads off to home detention. Because his visa’s still revoked, and Andrews isn’t budging on his ‘character’ judgment – lack of evidence notwithstanding. Apparently, an Immigration Minister is blessed with a preternatural ability to see the Evil That Men Do – or Think. Andrews also hints darkly that he has a secret dossier.

Over a year later, the AFP finally clear Haneef’s name and return his passport – but not his work visa. The good doctor decides he’s had enough. He’s been systematically victimised, had his character publicly assassinated, and has a long fight on his hands just to be allowed to stay in the very country that’s screwed him over so royally. To no one’s surprise, he gets on a plane to India and his family, where he’s welcomed with flowers and cheers.

Oh wait – one person’s surprised. Kevin ‘I Know Something You Don’t Know’ Andrews. He, apparently, thinks it’s suspicious that Haneef would want to turn his back on Australia and all those highly dubious laws that make it permissible to drag a doctor off the ward and into indefinite detention, kick him out of the country and publicly defame him – for no good reason. Andrews, apparently, still has information that will justify his outrageously draconian actions – and if we’re very good little boys and girls, he might just condescend to show us.

Even if we do get to see this damning information that even the Brits don’t have (or else they would never have released Haneef’s cousin), it’s unlikely that anything in that dossier can even begin to justify what was done to Dr Haneef in the name of ‘protecting Australia from terrorism’. Our government and law enforcement overreacted massively and came close to destroying a man’s life. Certainly, they destroyed his career, and his faith in justice.

But wait …

Kevin ‘Sees All, Knows All’ Andrews, surprise, surprise, suddenly says that it might not be possible to release the dossier after all. If he does, it might jeopardise an ‘ongoing investigation’ being undertaken by both Australian and British law enforcement.

Hang on, didn’t the Federal court establish that there was no connection between Haneef and any terrorist-related activities or groups? And didn’t the British already say they had no interest in Haneef’s cousin (remember him, the one with the cursed SIM card)?

It’s likely that the only thing releasing this ‘dossier’ would jeopardise is Mr. Andrews’ job. It would show everyone just how baseless his actions were, how flawed and prejudiced the investigation was, and how he manipulated a disgusting piece of legislative xenophobia – possibly for no other reason to satisfy his own sense of pique at being thwarted by the courts.

The Clarke Inquiry of 2008 concludes that the case against Haneef is ‘completely deficient’. It stops short of calling for Andrews’ resignation, however. In fact, it pretty much lets him off the hook altogether, stating that Andrews probably acted out of a genuine belief that Haneef had terrorist connections. There’s a faint whiff of criticism in the Inquiry’s report directed at Andrew’s failure to analyse all the information provided, but even then, Clarke is only ‘puzzled’.

So, back in 2010 …

Does Kevin Andrews need to apologise?

Why is this a question that even needs to be asked?

Andrews not only refuses to apologise, but commented publicly today that no legal action taken by Haneef would ever have succeeded had it come to court. The government, apparently, will issue an apology, which is commendable. Those who really need to front up, however – Andrews, former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and former Prime Minister John Howard – have no intention of doing so.

This quasi-mythical dossier should be released – because what we have is a paraphrased extract of a chat room conversation between Haneef and his brother that talks about Haneef’s newborn daughter and his planned trip to India. There has never been even one piece of evidence that might suggest Haneef is a terrorist or associates with them. Yet, on the basis of a Minister’s say-so, he was treated as though his guilt was not merely likely, but already proved beyond any doubt.

Andrews, Ruddock and Howard avoided having to answer the hard questions in 2008. In 2010, they should be compelled to do so. They should also be compelled to apologise publicly to Dr Haneef and his family, and that apology should be broadcast.

Instead it seems that – yet again – the only apology that will ever come out of the Howard years is one delivered by others.


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