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.
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.