For many years now, it’s been the same; fast moves and even faster talking have allowed Peter Slipper to stay one step ahead of trouble. This time the game appears to be up, and Slippery Pete returns to Australia from his latest overseas jaunt a hunted man.
Of course, we must be careful not to say anything that might prejudice investigations into the latest round of alleged expenses fraud by Slipper, nor into the explosive and sensational allegations of sexual harassment levelled at him this weekend by an employee.
Nonetheless, that caveat still leaves plenty of scope to comment on the latest episode in the life of a scoundrel, a treacherous dog, and a pretty poor specimen to boot.
I’ve known Peter Slipper for 20 years, and he always put a shudder down my spine; I’ve never known what it was, but the guy used to give me the creeps. Fortunately it has been a long time since I have seen him, and I hope I don’t see him again.
A parliamentarian once told me in the mid-1990s that “Peter’s a good guy” — an observation that made me more, not less, wary of Slipper whenever I saw him thenceforth.
There have always been a lot of interesting stories floating around about Peter Slipper; some of these have become common knowledge — the loose interpretations of travel entitlements, the flights via Sydney to maximise frequent flyer points, questions over ComCar usage and frequent late-night visits to Kings Cross, Fortitude Valley and St Kilda are a mere few.
And other of those stories have never — publicly — seen the light of day for various reasons, but interesting stories they remain.
And so it is a curious development this weekend that an employee of Slipper in his role of Speaker of the House of Representatives has made public an official sexual harassment complaint against him.
A lot of the allegations contained in this are pretty tawdry stuff; suggestions Slipper asked about such things as homosexual partner preferences and…er…bodily ejaculation locations…are, if true, completely unbecoming of a member of Parliament, and especially in terms of one acting as the boss of an employee.
The problem Slippery Pete has is that according to the court documents extensively leaked and published in the Murdoch press over the weekend, the allegations are backed by SMS text messages and emails purportedly from Slipper to the employee in question.
If those communications do exist, and if they are able to be conclusively linked to Peter Slipper as the author and sender, then the erstwhile member for Fisher might be staring down the barrel of a gun.
On the other side of the ledger, it comes as little surprise that the allegations of sexual misconduct are accompanied by a fresh round of allegations concerning travel expenditure, this time involving fraudulent use of Cabcharge vouchers; after all, if there is one thing Peter Slipper has repeatedly found himself embroiled in over the years, it is arguments over his misuse of travel entitlements.
I note for the record that in years past, Slipper has repaid tens of thousands of dollars worth of incorrectly claimed entitlement monies; his excuses generally boil down to each incident being “a misunderstanding.”
Like anyone, Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, but I just wonder what his “misunderstanding” might be in terms of the sex charges he now faces. That it was all a joke? That he, Slipper is the real victim? Or that the whole thing is an elaborate set-up? We will see; time will tell.
Having said all of that, the response from the Labor Party (and from Prime Minister Gillard especially) has been shockingly inept.
All weekend, out trundled the trusty ALP figures; they couldn’t pre-empt the coming legal cases, but Slipper had done a very good job as speaker; they weren’t buying in to the discussion but they wouldn’t be taking any action to remove him from the Speakership, either.
Gillard, for her part, said nothing.
Nothing, that is, until Slipper voluntarily stood aside from his post; after that, she welcomed him taking that course of action…but couldn’t say any more until the legal matters on foot had been resolved.
In other words, a greater volume of nothing.
Not that Slipper had any alternative to standing aside, mind you; at the minimum, he faced a vote when Parliament resumes to strip him of the Speakership that was almost guaranteed to be carried; beyond that, he risked a no-confidence motion being moved against the government on the basis of his continued presence, the outcome of which would have been impossible to predict.
I would make the point that having recruited Slipper for reasons of pure political expediency — in the full knowledge of what he is like, his past conduct, and of the probability of skeletons lurking in his closet — Gillard and her colleagues do themselves no end of residual damage in refusing to cut adrift such a liability.
It tarnishes them, it tarnishes the Labor Party, and it sends the unmistakable signal that political survival at any cost is preferable to the ALP than is decency, the upholding of standards, and the accountability of politicians in the eyes of the law.
Don’t forget, Gillard’s government is a shelter to not one, but two iffy characters facing criminal investigations and possible charges: just as Peter Slipper enjoys its patronage, so too does Craig Thomson.
At some point Gillard’s sycophantic refusal to distance herself and her party from these gentlemen (and I use the term loosely) is going to permanently stain the Labor Party as an organisation that turns a blind eye to official misconduct and criminal behaviour; or to put it bluntly, she is turning a once-proud and principled party into a degenerate cesspool of amoral nihilism.
It should ring alarm bells to Gillard and Labor that Tony Windsor is now canvassing the possibility of supporting a no-confidence vote moved by Tony Abbott in certain circumstances; Wilkie’s support for such a measure would seem a no-brainer.
Add Bob Katter Jr and Tony Crook to the 71 Coalition votes in the House as well, and there are the 75 votes to 74 on the floor of the House to remove Gillard from office and force an election.
Support from Rob Oakeshott would merely seal the deal.
It’s now as close as that; indeed, a fresh election would increasingly seem the only way out of this mess once and for all.
And with Slipper now back on the cross-bench and Labor’s Anna Bourke assuming duties as Speaker, Gillard is once again wholly wedded to the support of Independents for her survival.
This story obviously has some way to run and we will follow it as it develops.
But I return to where I started: for many years, through a combination of fast moves and quick talking, Slippery Pete has managed to stay the half-step in front of trouble he’s needed to in order to survive.
Today he came back to Australia, after yet another overseas junket; flying headlong into controversy as usual, and flying straight into the most serious allegations officially levelled at him thus far.
I think Houdini Pete has come to the end of the line; only a miracle will save him now.
This time, the clouds of fire into which he has leapt would seem that bit too hot for comfort.
What do you think?