Grattan on Friday: Brough’s baggage creates mess for Malcolm

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to elevate Mal Brough to the ministry threatened to come at a high cost this week. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Malcolm Turnbull, having briefly touched home base, is back on the summit round, flying off to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta and the Paris climate conference. He’s left behind a rather messy and smelly little scandal, the first to hit his ministry.

When he elevated to the ministry Queenslander Mal Brough, who had been impatiently stamping his feet on the backbench since re-entering parliament in 2013, Turnbull must have known he was tempting fate. Brough had baggage, in the form of his role in the Slipper affair.

A cabinet minister in the Howard government, Brough lost his seat of Longman in 2007; when he returned to parliament his eyes were on the frontbench. Tony Abbott did not accommodate him. Brough ended up in the vanguard of the Turnbull ranks. Like many other supporters, he was duly rewarded after the leadership change despite, in his case, the risks.

The story’s background is this.

In 2012 the Abbott opposition relentlessly pursued Peter Slipper, the political “rat” who deserted the Coalition to become Julia Gillard’s speaker in November 2011, in a move that improved the ALP numbers in the hung parliament.

Slipper was accused by his staffer James Ashby of rorting travel entitlements – those claims fell through but he was later convicted, then cleared on appeal, in relation to other Cabcharge incidents – and also of sexual harassment.

Brough, seeking Slipper’s seat of Fisher, which he now holds, was in the thick of the hunt after him, though he insisted he was just supporting Ashby, who launched a civil case against Slipper. Brough asked Ashby to obtain extracts of Slipper’s diary.

There are many ins and outs of this saga, but a couple of steps are crucial to its flaring up again now.

Last year, interviewed on Nine’s 60 Minutes, Brough admitted he had sought the diary extracts. He made no attempt to fudge. In reply to the question “did you ask James Ashby to procure copies of Peter Slipper’s diary for you?” Brough said “yes, I did”. His reason? “Because I believed Peter Slipper had committed a crime. I believed he was defrauding the Commonwealth.”

Then last week, the Australian Federal Police raided Brough’s home and that of Ashby’s parents. The search warrant said in relation to Brough that between March 23 and April 13, 2012, he “counselled and procured” Ashby, a Commonwealth officer, to disclose extracts from Slipper’s 2009 to 2012 official diary, and to provide them to third parties without authority, contrary to the Crimes Act. It also refers to another possible offence under the Criminal Code.

Suddenly, Turnbull’s promoting Brough was threatening to come at a high cost.

Labor pressed Brough all week in Question Time, building to an attempted censure motion against Turnbull on Thursday for his “complete lack of judgement” in appointing Brough when he knew the extent of his involvement in the Ashby affair, and his failure to “dismiss or even stand aside” Brough. The government applied the gag.

Labor was able to make its attack more directly and sharply because Turnbull not only put Brough in the ministry but made him special minister of state, a portfolio that especially involves issues of integrity. The opposition linked his past actions and his present position very directly. “Given the minister is responsible for government integrity”, were his actions “appropriate and in keeping with the standards he would enforce as special minister of state?”, it asked.

During the week Clive Palmer added fuel to the controversy by repeating in parliament claims he has previously made that Brough in April 2012 “requested I fund the legal costs” of Ashby’s case, saying “we needed to destroy Peter Slipper”. Brough has rejected Palmer’s claim he asked for funds.

Turnbull has stood by Brough this week. He told parliament that “the facts and circumstances” of the matter had been well known before Brough was elected in 2013. “There are no new facts, matters or circumstances that have come to hand.”

This is patently wrong. The most dramatic new circumstance is the police action last week.

But Turnbull has left himself a clear out. “If there are new developments, obviously they will be considered,” he told parliament.

Whatever the legalities, given his admission of what he did, Brough should not have been appointed to the ministry. If the police find he has a case to answer, he will be out; if not, he can be expected to survive. In the meantime, Turnbull appears willing to tough out the situation.

Turnbull knows he has plenty of political capital at the moment and also that the public are currently focused on where the government is going on policy rather than on a rather obscure ministerial scandal.

Pending the result of the police inquiries, voters will be much less agitated by the Brough affair than they were, for example, about Bronwyn Bishop’s use of entitlements. Ordinary people were outraged by her A$5000 helicopter ride and various other extravagances on the public purse, even though there was no law broken. It was a populist “snouts in the trough” story.

In the Brough case, however, the issues of political integrity are actually more fundamental.

This story has been changed to correct an inaccuracy in relation to the Slipper travel entitlements allegations.