Jun 27, 2012

Transcript of press conference – Parliament House, Canberra

Issue: Peter Slipper

ANTHONY ALBANESE:Tony Abbott has had a lot to say at times about various issues that have been raised in the Parliament.  Indeed, he’s made it clear on a number of occasions that the allegations around Peter Slipper have profound consequences for the Government.

Indeed, he said on 26 April:

“It becomes increasingly clear with each passing day that the fate of the Gillard Government rests entirely on two members of Parliament, Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson.”

This is a very political issue.  What we’ve seen as time rolls on, just like in the Godwin Grech affair, we’ve seen the details and the reality and the facts be very different from the allegations that were first made.

There are people in this room who made pretty strong comments on that weekend in April about the allegations being made against the Speaker, which implied that to make an allegation was to have them proven.

For months now the Leader of the Opposition [Tony Abbott] has engaged in daily commentary on these issues.  He has run from the Parliament but he can’t run from his role and the role of the Coalition in these events.

What we know is that in spite of Mr Abbott’s comments on May 17 where he said very clearly, when asked by a journalist, will you disclose all contact that party members have had with James Ashby, Mr Abbott replied unequivocally and I quote:

“All of our contact is on the record.”

Well, excuse me, but if you look at the documents that have been released by the Court, what they show is an extraordinary level of contact prior to any allegations being made publicly against Mr Slipper between Mr Ashby, Mr Brough, Mr McIver and Mr McArdle, who’s now a minister in the Queensland Government.  You now have an acknowledgment that people such as Clive Palmer, a senior figure in the operation, knew about these issues.

Now we know some things.

We know that Mal Brough met with Joe Hockey and Clive Palmer.  Mal Brough, the person who wants Peter Slipper’s seat in Parliament, has a meeting with Clive Palmer and Joe Hockey – and is aware of all of this, has lined up meetings with lawyers, has lined up meetings with people who go on to be ministers in the incoming Queensland Government – but this issue doesn’t rate a mention at the meeting, or so Joe Hockey would have you believe.

We know that Mal Brough, Christopher Pyne and Joe Hockey have all had to change their story.  Mal Brough originally said that it was “nonsense” that he had any prior knowledge.

Christopher Pyne had to change his story about three or four times in terms of his contact with Mr Ashby, and would have you believe that it’s ‘business as usual’ for someone in the position of Leader of the House or Manager of Opposition Business to sit down with the Speaker’s staff, without the Speaker being there, for a few drinks and a chat over a lazy hour and a half – and then have ongoing contact after that.

The quite explosive documents released by the Court means that it is time, given the public nature of the way in which this issue has been dealt with, for Tony Abbott do nothing more and nothing less than what he said he had already done.  The Government calls upon Tony Abbott to disclose all contact between his party and James Ashby, the nature of that contact, the level of knowledge and the involvement in the legal action taken by Mr Ashby, including the questions that had been raised as a result of the release of the court documents regarding who is actually paying for this court action.

Who is paying for this court action?

So we ask nothing more and nothing less than transparency.  That is what the Opposition has demanded of the Government over a range of issues including this one.

What we do know from the court documents is that Mr Slipper was first contacted by Mr Lewis, very late on the Friday.  For you journalists in the room, if you had a story like this you would normally contact someone before the paper was laid out.  That’s normal practice.

What we also know – and I contrast the weekend on which these revelations first come up with the last couple.  The story was broken on 21 April.  Mr Slipper was out of the country.  I do note that a number of the allegations in the original story have not even been proceeded with by Mr Ashby.  A number of the text messages that appeared in the paper and did a great deal of damage to Mr Slipper as well as, of course, the allegations about misuse of Cabcharges, are gone.

We know that Mr Slipper was out of the country.

We know also that Tony Abbott was in the region that night.  We know also that Mr Abbott had a press release ready to go at 9.15am the next morning and he did a doorstop that day.  We know he didn’t do one doorstop the next day; he did two in two different capital cities.

We know that in spite of the fact that the Coalition have been notably reticent to appear on Sunday morning programs, where you actually have to face tougher questions than on the Alan Jones’ program, they had not one but two spokespeople out on that Sunday (22 April).  We know that Tony Abbott was on Sunrise on Monday morning (23 April) and the 7.30 show that evening, I think I’m right in saying, first and only appearance this year.  He also did a doorstop on that day.

That contrasts with his level of accountability in this place where he refuses to have press conferences with the first graders here.  Instead he goes outside of the Parliament in order to get softer questions and nice piccies.  On the weekend before last, he was absent completely.  He had a pretty low profile last weekend as well.

So I think it is time for the Opposition to come clean about everything they know and their involvement in all of this because it’s seeping out day by day.  It is unseemly for the democratic processes that they say they want to protect.

Happy to take questions.

QUESTION:  Aren’t you asking the Opposition to in a sense pre-empt – or aren’t you pre-empting the work of the court, all of these things will be tested in the court?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Not at all.  What I’m asking for is their involvement.  The courts are dealing with the very specific allegations.  What I’m asking for is nothing more and nothing less than what they were prepared to do when these allegations were first made.

You know, it’s a bit rich frankly, unless someone is a goldfish, the idea that Christopher Pyne and his cohorts have credibility when they say this has got nothing to do with us.

The court documents were lodged on the Friday afternoon.  They engaged in it including when Parliament resumed.  You might recall Christopher Pyne moving resolutions on the floor of the Parliament about the nature of the Speaker.  He did that on the first day back, 8 May.

You were all writing about it and they were all talking about it.  So let’s not have this nonsense, this absolute nonsense from them about these issues.  They’ve been prepared to talk about this; you’ve been prepared to write about it.  It was being discussed.  The whole basis of this was something that was dropped out in a big splash in the newspapers without any possibility of Mr Slipper being given an opportunity to answer the allegations that were being made.  Indeed, some of those allegations have not even been pursued.

But having been on the public record – and I ask you to compare the coverage on that Saturday with the coverage, for example, in the Telegraph today.

QUESTION: If the Ashby case fails as you clearly think it should, should Peter Slipper be restored as Speaker immediately?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Peter Slipper is the Speaker.

QUESTION:  Should he step back into his role immediately and take over from that?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Peter Slipper is the Speaker.

QUESTION:  In your opening remarks are you suggesting that Tony Abbott must have had some sort of knowledge of what was coming?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  I’m laying out the facts which are there.  The facts are that the Coalition had a great deal of preparedness to be out there.  I’m sure you know directly or indirectly, those Sunday programs, I certainly know, they chase me up well in advance.  I know when I’m going to be on.

And Mr Bongiorno here can attest to that, notwithstanding his devastation that I’ve chosen The Bolt Report this Sunday.  The Bolt Report was lined up two weeks ago.  So well in advance of all of this it was lined up.  I wanted to know if Andrew Bolt was going to be there and Melbourne was going to be there, so I agreed to do it on 1 July.

These things don’t happen spontaneously.  Have a look at the extent to which the papers out on Saturday morning.  There was a response from Mr Abbott at 9.15am on Saturday morning.  There were people out there all weekend.

And we know from the text messages that have been released by the Court that Mr Brough – he is not some ‘Neville Nobody’ in Caloundra branch.  This guy wants to be the Member for Fisher.  This guy was a senior Minister in the former government.  This guy said that it was “nonsense” that he knew any of it.  We know that that’s not the case.

We know from the reports in The Australian today about some of the discussions that took place between senior members.  We know from the text messages, if you go through them, there’s been considerable contact.  I think it is more than reasonable that they do what they were asking people to do.  They said all the contact was out there.  Let’s have it out there.

QUESTION:  You say the answer to Phil’s question that you were just laying out the facts.  It sounds to me as though you’re calling Tony Abbott a liar.  Aren’t you?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  I’m saying that Tony Abbott has been very prepared to engage in a politically opportunistic action from day one.  He has sought political advantage.  The text messages outline that this isn’t about the issue in itself, and that is one of the big issues here.

Sexual harassment is a serious issue.  It should not be used as a political play-thing in order to secure political advantage.  If someone has a sexual harassment issue there are appropriate ways for them to be dealt with.  That should happen.

What shouldn’t occur is that people who’ve held senior positions in public life, and aspire to do so, play politics with such an issue.

QUESTION:  But playing politics isn’t a crime.  I mean we’d all be locked up.  Journalists talk to politicians about stories all the time, as you know.  Politicians get tipped off about what’s going to be in the news that night, in the papers the next day.  Where’s the crime in this?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  There are some very real issues raised by these text messages.  One of them is that someone asked for the diary of a Member of Parliament to be handed over unauthorised.  That is a very serious allegation indeed.  They are raised through these text messages and they are a matter which I think will be looked at further.  There are issues raised in these text messages that go to appropriate behaviour.

QUESTION:  Are you saying that the federal police are going to look into that?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Well that’s not up to me.  That’s up to the Federal Police.  I’m saying that the documents are out there.  They’re there for all to see.

If you hand over, you know, David Leckie’s – he’s still there – diary to Channel 9, I reckon you’ve got a problem.  I reckon you’ve got a problem and it’s not just a moral and an ethical one.

QUESTION:  Isn’t it a double standard – sorry – that the Government has refused to answer questions on the Craig Thomson issue on a regular basis when it was [indistinct], and this is the Peter Slipper case and it’s before the courts and yet you and Nicola Roxon have both held press conferences on the details of the case?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Well the Craig Thomson issue hasn’t been discussed.

QUESTION:  Well your ministers and yourself on a regular basis …

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  The Craig Thomson issue hasn’t been discussed?  Craig Thomson gave a statement to the Parliament.  It has been discussed.  He outlined to the Parliament his version of the issues that he confronts.

I’m not making allegations here at all.  I’m saying there are court documents that the Court has chosen to release.  The court has chosen to release them on the basis that there is a public interest in them being released.

This has been a case that hasn’t been dealt with – this wasn’t a court process that began in a normal way in which allegations would be dealt with.  If there were allegations to be dealt with there’s a whole range of measures that would be gone through.  This is something in which – this was very much, and the Commonwealth’s case is very much, in terms of the way that this was developed, in terms of the engagement with the media and with people in political positions.

QUESTION:  You said today that this has already been spoken about and written about, so that’s why you’re commenting.  So was the Craig Thomson affair as well, so why not comment on that?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Well, I reckon I’ve had a few questions on that.  Are you saying I haven’t had one?

QUESTION:  No, you seem to be going – more willing, though, to provide commentary on this matter.

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Are you saying I haven’t had one?  You haven’t asked me one.

QUESTION:  No, I’m saying you seem more willing to …

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Well you haven’t asked me one.  Get real.  I’ve been asked questions about these issues at press conferences for months.  For months!  So don’t pretend that that’s not the case.

QUESTION:  Just on the powers of referral.  The government’s got powers of referral to the AFP, but has the Parliament also got powers of referral here on privileges issues with regards to the diary?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  There are certainly a range of privileges issues with regard to members of Parliament, let alone the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  They’re outlined in House of Reps practice and in the processes.

QUESTION:  But aren’t they – or rather are you waiting for the court case to be…

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  I’m not here to make those announcements.

QUESTION:  Well, it’s a fair question, Minister.

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  It is.

QUESTION:  If this bloke is, as you allege, handed over his boss’s diary, well why am I as a taxpayer and taxpayers in general, still funding his thing?  Why isn’t he being sacked?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  The Commonwealth made application on the last day of the Court.  Actually, that’s one of the reasons why Nicola Roxon held the press conference that she did, because the taxpayers are entitled to know what the Commonwealth is putting forward, and the Commonwealth has put before the Court that essentially Mr Ashby and Ms Done, who are still current employees, have breached their employment provisions.

QUESTION:  Are you considering some sort of a referral yourself to the AFP on this matter?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  No, that’s not up to me to do it.

QUESTION:  Well it is the Commonwealth?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Well, that’s not up to me to do it.  I reckon that the AFP is a pretty good organisation, and they’ll be having a close look at this.

QUESTION:  The other imputations that you’ve made today about what Tony Abbott might have known and not known … it’s unlikely that a court will look at that, at all.  It’s not really germane to the Ashby case as far as a court’s concerned?

ANTHONY ALBANESE:  Well it’s very different.  It’s in the political arena.  It is very much a political issue, which is why it is perfectly legitimate for it to be raised here and for it to be discussed in this great house of politics.  That’s essentially what we are saying.

There is evidence in the documentation that’s been released by the Court that this was about securing a political advantage for the Coalition.  That this why this has been pursued.

We must remember, Mr Slipper is someone who’s been preselected and elected as a conservative Member of Parliament on nine separate occasions.  Mr Slipper was someone who Mr Abbott was prepared to give glowing references to when he was running in pre-selections in Queensland.

Since he’s taken up his position as Speaker, in the words of one person involved in these issues, there’s been an attempt to “get him”.