PUBLISHED: 04 OCT 2012 13:54:00 | UPDATED: 05 OCT 2012 04:10:27
HANNAH LOW AND KATIE WALSH
Parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper used vulgar language to describe women’s sexual organs in messages to his former press secretary, James Ashby, the Federal Court was told.
The messages, in which Mr Slipper allegedly described female genitalia as “shell-less mussels”, were introduced as evidence in the trial of a sexual harassment claim filed by Mr Ashby against Mr Slipper. In one text message, Mr Slipper referred to a trip to a “fish shop” to “buy the bottle of shell-less mussels”. Mr Ashby’s barrister, Michael Lee, SC, said it was a reference to female genitalia.
As the text message was read in court, Mr Slipper, who represented himself, stood up and objected, complaining: “Mr Lee is endeavouring to get onto the record some of the material which your Honour is obviously considering”. Mr Lee said he sought a “warts and all” admission of all text messages, and said the government and Mr Slipper had presented the court with a “potted version of the text messages in order to advance a particular view”. Additional messages were needed to give a full picture and to expose “the lie” behind Mr Slipper’s case that Mr Ashby planned and schemed the entire affair, he said.
200 PAGES OF TEXT MESSAGES
Mr Lee said that, rather than Mr Ashby engaging in “flirtatious grooming” of Mr Slipper, communications between the two showed the opposite: Mr Slipper introduced “sexualised” language which Mr Ashby would move on from, reject or rebuff.
The messages made Mr Ashby uncomfortable, but he continued to fulfil his duties as an employee, Mr Lee said, while seeking advice from family, friends and later, barrister David Russell, QC, as he tried to work out whether he could “tough it out”.
Despite Mr Slipper’s objections, Federal Court judge Steven Rares admitted into evidence sections of about 200 pages of text messages, provided they were used in compliance with parliamentary privilege laws.
In a separate email from Mr Slipper, read to the court by Mr Lee, he described Liberal politician Mal Brough as female genitalia. “Funny how we say a person is a C when many guys like Cs,” another text message allegedly said. When Mr Slipper asked: “Can I kiss you both?” that was the “final straw” for Mr Ashby, Mr Lee said. When pushed by the judge for a date when his position as an adviser became intolerable for Mr Ashby, Mr Lee said it was March 20.
JUDGE SCATHING OF ASHBY’S APPROACH
Justice Rares was scathing of the way in which Mr Ashby pursued the lawsuit, saying he made no attempt to resolve the dispute and had inflamed the matter. He said initial accusations of criminality filed against Mr Slipper relating to the use of Cabcharges were “very, very troubling”, doubting it gave rise to any cause of action and questioning whether it was an abuse of the court’s process.
The allegations against Mr Slipper led to his being stood down as House of Representatives Speaker, one of the most important roles in Federal Parliament. Deputy Speaker and Labor MP Anna Burke has since acted as speaker. Yesterday, independent MP Tony Windsor indicated he would support Mr Slipper returning to the chair if cleared of the allegations, saying he “couldn’t see I would object to it” if it came to a vote in Parliament.
Earlier in yesterday’s hearing, Justice Rares told Mr Slipper he was “locked in” to the sexual harassment claim, even though the government had paid out Mr Ashby. Mr Slipper told the court that following the government’s agreement to pay Mr Ashby $50,000, the dispute against him should fall away because Mr Ashby was unlikely to receive much more in compensation. “Really there is nothing much left” in the dispute, Mr Slipper said, “and the action should be dismissed”. Justice Rares said that was not the case because Mr Ashby still had an unresolved “claim against you that you sexually harassed him”.
Barrister for the government, Julian Burnside, QC, offered to act for Mr Slipper. After a brief adjournment, Mr Slipper appeared on his own at the bar table. He told the court that the case was not about sexual harassment but “damaging me politically, damaging me financially and destabilising the government of Australia”.
Mr Lee said the allegations made by Mr Slipper were “so serious, so lacking in reasonableness and so misconceived that the behaviour in making them was unreasonable”.
The judge admonished Mr Slipper for using a secret court entrance on Wednesday, which sparked an outcry after he avoided media attention, saying this could have been considered “favourable treatment”.
The court had no involvement in the arrangements, the judge said, adding that the court “has a duty that justice must not only be done but it must be seen to be done”.
STILL BEING PAID
Mr Slipper apologised to the court for “inadvertently entering in a way that was inappropriate” and said he was sorry for the “unintended discourtesy to the court in not attending” earlier in the week.
Justice Rares was forced to rule on exactly which settlement should be applied between the government and Mr Ashby after the duo could not agree on terms in a nine-hour mediation on Wednesday. Mr Ashby is still being paid by the government, despite having not worked in nearly six months.
In court Mr Burnside, for the government, again raised the possibility that Mr Ashby would be fired following the settlement. “He was on the personal staff of a person who he obviously can’t work with,” the judge remarked. “The simple fact is that the relationship has broken down irretrievably, I would have thought.”
The trial continues.
with James Massola
with James Massola