THE PRESSURE on Malcolm Turnbull to fire Special Minister of State Mal Brough will mount over the silly season, even if Brough is cleared of allegations made against him; Brough’s inconclusive account of events that finished former Speaker Peter Slipper is set to haunt the government, evoking a name — Godwin Grech — Turnbull would rather forget. Instead, Malcolm is in the middle of a sordid business that should have concluded months ago.
If there was a single, discernible point at which Liberal Party conservatives switched off forever in terms of tolerating Malcolm Turnbull as leader, it came in mid-2009, as an email Turnbull was supplied by a Commonwealth public servant that appeared to show a corruption trail leading to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — upon which Turnbull had relied heavily in his pursuit of the former government — was revealed to be an utter forgery; apparently Turnbull and/or his staff had declined to verify the contents of the leaked email. Had they done so, Turnbull’s voluble crusade against Rudd would never have happened, but he would appear less reckless and more astute in the eyes of colleagues and party members who were dubious about supporting him.
The author of that email, of course, was Godwin Grech; the affair it triggered — Utegate — is a short, sharp byword for almost everything Turnbull’s critics base their aversion to supporting him on. And now, Grech’s name has suddenly become all too relevant once more.
But first, a little history; in late 1995, I befriended a first-time Liberal candidate in the newly created seat of Longman, which then ran in a thin north-south band inland from Brisbane; that candidate was Mal Brough, and I thought, quite seriously, that the fresh-faced, urbane Brough could well end up leading the party. I was happy to do what I could to help him (which, admittedly, wasn’t much) and although I didn’t work for him after the 1996 election — I was too young, not that anyone could have told me that at the time — I watched his career with great interest and considerable goodwill toward both Mal and his wife Sue, whom I had also met during the 1996 campaign.
It didn’t bother me that Mal was a Liberal moderate: ferociously unaligned as a conservative where the party’s personality-based factions are concerned, I have often supported moderates over the years, and was happy to do so in Brough’s case.
But Mal was a surprise victim of the 2007 election defeat; and when the Liberals and Nationals merged in Queensland — something I opposed vehemently — it seemed Brough’s political career was at its end, declining as he initially did to take any part in the merged entity. Loudmouths like Clive Palmer can goad Brough all they like about his thwarted ambition to be state president of the LNP, but the simple fact is that passions (and tempers) were raw, inflamed, and often boiled over at that time, and Brough wasn’t the only prominent Liberal to depart the LNP.
In many respects, I’m sure he wonders now why he bothered returning to the party at all, let alone as a federal MP, and the two words that spring inevitably forth are the name of the turncoat who sold the LNP down the river to become Speaker of the House of Representatives under Julia Gillard: Peter Slipper.
Brough must rue the day he ever heard Slipper’s name, and he isn’t Robinson Crusoe there.
Yet the scandal involving former Slipper staffer James Ashby — and the question of whether Brough asked Ashby to procure Slipper’s diaries (as part of the political witch hunt against the LNP defector) — seems to know no bounds; and once again, in Question Time this week, it reared its ugly head: this time through a determined ALP assault on Brough’s credibility, highlighting discrepancies between an interview he gave 60 Minutes in 2014 (and seemingly admitted asking Ashby for precisely that) and now, when he emphatically denies ever asking for such a thing at all.
Initially, I was pleased when Brough announced he would stand against Slipper, first for his LNP preselection for the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, and ultimately as an endorsed candidate at the 2013 election, and as I had in 1995, I contacted Brough to convey that I was happy to do what I could to help him (which, admittedly, still wasn’t much with me long-since removed to Melbourne, although I did offer to remotely provide his campaign with help on the broad communications/media front for nothing, which he declined).
But it’s one of those face-palming realities that just as a ready-made senior Cabinet minister with leadership capabilities stood to return to Parliament, potentially bolstering an Abbott ministry that looked like being light-on for standouts, the fracas surrounding Slipper and Ashby, who had accused him of sexual harassment, exploded, casting serious questions over Brough’s judgement and raising the question (hitherto unresolved) of whether he had acted illegally in joining (and to some extent, leading) the charge against the disgraced former Speaker.
On one level, Brough deserves enduring credit for going after Peter Slipper, an insidious individual with whom I had the misfortune 20-odd years ago to have had some dealings in Queensland; however the legal cloud over Brough’s head resolves itself, and irrespective of Slipper having a charge of defrauding the commonwealth overturned on appeal, one thing that has irrefutably emerged from the Slipper fiasco is that he is a very, very unsavoury individual: his apparent predilection for sordid details of the sex lives of his staff, combined with some truly abhorrent reflections on the sexual physiology of women, are enough to convince any reasonably minded individual that Slipper is a monster even if he did ultimately manage to give his legal problems the slip.
Nobody could blame Brough (or anyone else in a position to pursue Slipper) for doing whatever they could to drive him out of Parliament.
Yet sometimes, highly likeable and otherwise good, decent people make mistakes that overstep the mark where the law is concerned; the question now is whether — in allegedly seeking the diaries and other documents of Slipper’s through Ashby prior to his re-entry to Parliament — Brough did precisely that.
The Australian Federal Police clearly believe the question remains open, having raided Brough’s house recently in search of evidence.
The storm that erupted during the week over apparent discrepancies between what Brough apparently said in that 60 Minutes interview — seemingly confirming that he had asked Ashby to get Slipper’s diary — and what he says now which, emphatically, is that he did not, is one that should easily have been foreseen by Turnbull on his return to the Liberal leadership and averted by leaving Brough on the backbench until it was resolved.
Procuring or attempting to procure the documents of a Commonwealth official (in other words, Slipper) is a criminal offence; and aside from its initial, class-hatred based attack on Turnbull’s personal fortune, it is telling that the Brough issue is one of the earliest crusades Labor has embarked upon since Turnbull resumed the Liberal leadership.
To say investigations into everything that happened concerning Peter Slipper during the last term of Parliament have dragged on far too long is an understatement; yes, such inquiries must run their course, and must be seen to have done so. But in the end, these are matters that occurred some years ago, and it is in nobody’s interests for them to go on ad infinitum.
Brough may well have survived the ALP onslaught this week, but anyone — including Brough, and especially Turnbull — who thinks the matter won’t resurface the instant Parliament reconvenes next year is delusional.
Labor is likely to continue to hammer Brough over the silly season at every opportunity in any case, just to ensure the whiff of impropriety it seeks to harvest from the ongoing investigation continues to swirl around voters at the very time they want to switch off politics for the year.
And for as long as the issue — and the cloud hanging over Brough’s integrity — remains unresolved, the government will remain plagued by questions over Turnbull’s judgement in having Brough in the ministry at all.
One will say something nice for once about the iron fist Peta Credlin exercised over the Abbott government: whether by Abbott’s design or Credlin’s insistence, Brough was excluded from the Coalition’s first ministry; further, the moment the suggestion of impropriety was levelled against former Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis, he was stood aside pending exoneration.
The only proper course of action for Brough to follow is to resign: and if he won’t go voluntarily, Turnbull is going to have to sack him.
A chronic history of very poor political judgement is one of the reasons Turnbull was dumped in favour of Abbott in the first place; already, and involving issues that go beyond the fracas over Brough that continues to play out, those questions around Turnbull’s judgement were already beginning to resurface just ten weeks into his rebirth as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.
That tin ear — which led him to embrace the fictitious material provided by Grech back in 2009 — has now apparently rendered Turnbull insensible to the political damage retaining Brough as Special Minister of State is probably already doing to the government’s electoral standing.
More broadly, however, it isn’t a good look for the Liberal Party in opposition to (correctly) go after any number of dubious individuals among the ranks of its opponents — Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Julia Gillard et al — only to retain such an individual on its frontbench when in office itself.
It doesn’t matter that Turnbull may feel indebted to Brough for assisting with shoring up the numbers for the latter to return to the leadership: the rendering of political assistance does not, should not and must not provide a shield against the proper process of a criminal investigation, nor preclude one of its subjects from behaving appropriately: and the only appropriate course of action for Brough to pursue, until and/or unless he is found by Police to have no case to answer, is to quit.
If Brough is innocent of any wrongdoing (and I sincerely hope he is) then I can understand how frustrating (or even unfair) it must be to find himself under suspicion, but in the interests of propriety, sound governance, and for the good of the Liberal Party itself, he must relinquish his post.
If Turnbull has to sack a second supporter to make it so, then so it must be. At least Brough is unlikely to run off to the National Party seeking to abuse Coalition process to get his job back, which is more than you can say about the pathetic, failed ex-minister who did just that this week, but that’s another story.
The ball is in Turnbull’s court, it seems. If he has learned anything at all since Grech made a fool of him six and a half years ago and turned the Liberal leadership into a national joke, now is the time to prove it.