Monday, April 23, 2012

Dirty, Sexy Politics - The Slipper Saga

If there's one guarantee about Australian politics, it's that there's always a stir going on that the public never sees, or that we refuse to see.
While the sexual harassment allegations made against Speaker Slipper over the weekend are nothing short of astounding, neither are they surprising. Between politicians having affairs with one another, Senators occasionally shoplifting and Party leaders making homophobic remarks while having closeted LGBT family members, things aren't always as clear cut as they may first appear within our nation's capital.

Take for example the situation surrounding James Ashby, who is the staffer who made the allegations against Slipper. Last month Ashby was caught up in a minor scandal, after he grabbed a reporter's iPhone at a news conference and threw it into scrubland. At the time I thought that this was pretty weird behaviour for a political staffer, so I decided to have a look at his online presence in order to get a feel for what the guy was like. Low and behold, I found that he had a modest number of tweets, a LinkedIn page and accounts on Facebook and Youtube, all of which seemed pretty tame at the time.

Due to the way that various politicians and Press Gallery reporters have reacted since the Slipper sex story broke, its pretty obvious that the general thought around Capital Hill is that Slipper has engaged in gay activities in the past. Given that more than a few politicians, journalists and bureaucrats in Canberra are closeted, it isn't surprising that Slipper's supposed sexual orientation has been kept quiet, on the risk that they could be “outted” themselves. For somebody who has been closeted in the workplace and at home for years, if not decades, the thought of being “outted” as being anything other than “normal” would be terrifying.

After the sex scandal allegations broke on Friday, I decided to have another look at Ashby's social media accounts in order to see if there was anything I'd missed about his online and offline personalities. To my immediate surprise, I noticed that somebody had made a considerable effort to make Ashby's online activities as non-controversial as possible. Not only had his Facebook page disappeared, but his LinkedIn profile had been changed and most of his posts on Twitter had been removed. As well as this, all of the cached content from these websites had been either wiped or made in-accessible to the general public. Strangely enough, his predominantly news-focused YouTube account had been left largely untouched.
(Read more after the jump)

Intrigued by this, I then asked a few people who I knew were familiar with Ashby's Twitter profile if they could remember some of his tweets, just to see if they corresponded with my own recollection of them. By using Google and parts of these memorised tweets, I was able to find the following messages that were directly attributed by Google to Ashby's Twitter account.

Tweet - “James Ashby. jamesashby James Ashby. a 32yo friend of mine tried his first Gaytime icecream this weekend after a fear of buying one just in case someone ...”

Tweet -noticed Peter Slipper put out a statement today over the Fisher FDC AGM in Maleny on Saturday"

As well as this, I also found instances where Ashby had referenced his Canon EOS 5D camera, which had prompted discussions previously between Ashby and other photographers around Australia.

While these references in and of themselves aren't indicative of what may or may not have happened between Slipper and Ashby, they do show that Ashby has engaged more heavily in social media than his various profiles currently suggest. The fact that Ashby deleted all but one of his tweets (rather than making his account private) also suggests that there may have been something he wanted to hide once his court case became public. Regardless of whether Ashby deleted those tweets for personal or legal reasons, the fact that he deleted them in the first place could cast serious doubt amongst the public over the authenticity of his story.

The fact that Ashby's own media profile could cause major headaches for his actions against both Slipper and the Commonwealth, is probably what prompted him to hire AnthonyMcClellan of AMC Media as a public relations consultant. Having been fined in court for making threatening phone-calls to rival presenters while being a presenter of NX-FM's (Newcastle) Drive program in 2002, while also having the recent phone-throwing incident caught on tape, Ashby probably would have viewed McClellan as being able to paint his troubled media career in a more sympathetic light to the public.

Over the weekend I approached McClellan via email, Twitter and SMS for comment in regards to his association with Ashby, as well as whether he had been involved in the editing of his client's social media profiles, or had been notified that such actions had taken place. As of when this article was published, no response had been made to my queries.

The fact that McClellan is involved in this case also raises serious questions over what Ashby's overall intentions are. That's because most people who are engaged in major legal cases normally leave dealing with the media to their lawyers. Not only does this mean that crucial aspects of various cases aren't released unintentionally, it also guarantees that the lawyers in question have the ability to mould public opinion in ways that could influence the final outcome of the case itself.
Given that McClellan's services don't often come cheap, one has also got to wonder how Ashby is able to afford him at this time, let alone his legal team. Unlike other people that McClellan has represented previously, Ashby is unable to sell his story to the press as any such action would give the kiss of death to his court case, as evidenced by the statement McClellan placed on Twitter earlier today. As both of these services would cost a lot of money, it will be interesting to see if Ashby will be able to bankroll both his lawyers and media agent long-term.

Furthermore even if Ashby's allegations are true, it's not a sure thing that a court would find Slipper guilty of sexual harassment. Court cases can take on a life of their own, especially when Justices request evidence of not only your own harassment, but a track-record of previous incidents where the accused has done the same to other people.  That could mean providing evidence such as affidavits, recordings and other verifiable material that can be used as support for any existing legal claims.  Since this is now a high-profile case, Ashby could have problems obtaining evidence like that if he hasn't done so already, as a lot of people would feel threatened by the thought of receiving the same level of media attention that Ashby presently is.

As a recent study by the University of South Australia has shown, civil sexual harassment cases have been known to drag on for years before a resolution is reached. Due to this, it's surprising that Ashby has decided to take such a public course of action in regards to this case. Having witnessed various workplace complaints previously, I'm aware of how stressful and exhaustive they can be for all parties, even without getting legal representatives involved. By overlooking mediation Ashby will now encounter a lot of extra trauma that he otherwise could have avoided, and that's without even taking the homophobia which will come from parts of society into account.

While many people view Ashby as a “Trojan Horse” who was placed in Slipper's office in order to bring him down due to his LNP connections, it is important that we recognise that Ashby would have had to have felt genuinely aggrieved as a victim in order to have taken the action that he has. Whether or not his allegations are true or not will be a matter for the courts, however it would be a massive affront to both the legal system and Australian democracy if his claims and evidence aren't heard with an open mind by the general public.

At the same time however, we must also recognise that our political leaders, members of parliament and journalists are as diverse and as human as the rest of us. While it is realistic that we hold them to certain standards, it is also completely unrealistic and unfair for us to hold them accountable for what would be non-issues in any other part of society. If we are to truly become “The land of the truly free”, we need to accept everyone for who they really are, not who we think they should be.


  1. Interesting. There would be no mileage in any of the participants finding the approach or rebuff of a genuine LGBT "advance" on the part of either Ashby or Slipper legally "wrong" or "unpleasant" without raising issues of prejudice. I can't really see the case reaching open court unless something truly illegal on the statutes has occurred and it can be proven. Suddenly it looks to me like a diversion from the central concerns of the Federal goverment. Goodness knows whether someone wants this to be detrimental or enhancing to either side's position!

  2. Ashby was talked into taking the action he has by the Coalition. Everyone knows this. Everyone also knows that there was some flirting but hardly sexual harassment. Just waiting for this to backfire.

  3. All public Tweets on Twitter are achived at the US Library of Congress. Also Tweets a NEVER physically deleted

  4. a purely semantic point - "outted" or "outed"? or do you have to put it in inverted commas in any case?