Subjects: Mal Brough and James Ashby, Mr Abbott's cover-up.

Transcript, E&OE

5 May 2012

DIANE COVENY-GARLAND: Now it seems the drama surrounding Peter Slipper's former staffer James Ashby continues. The plot thickens, as they say. It's been revealed that former Howard Government minister Mal Brough met with Ashby before he filed claims against Peter Slipper.

On the line I have Trade Minister Dr Craig Emerson. Good afternoon.


COVENY-GARLAND: How are you going?

EMERSON: Pretty good. Yeah.

COVENY-GARLAND: Good stuff. Now it seems Mal Brough had quite an interest in this. Why do you think that would be?

EMERSON: Mr Brough is a rival of Mr Slipper's and is going to run in the next election for Mr Slipper's seat of Fisher.

COVENY-GARLAND: Were you surprised when you heard the latest revelations regarding this?

EMERSON: There was always a problem with the various accounts given by Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne, in particular, because they used the same curious language – saying that they had "no specific knowledge" of these allegations before they appeared in the newspaper. And Mr Abbott went on to say that to the best of his knowledge neither did anyone else in the Coalition have any specific knowledge. So, obviously, they were trying to cover something up.

Mr Pyne's story about his own meetings with Mr Ashby has changed three times just in the space of the last few days. So it didn't really surprise me that Mr Brough was into this in the form of three meetings with Mr Ashby and assistance in preparing the affidavit against Mr Slipper.

COVENY-GARLAND: Do you think the Coalition is trying to bring Peter Slipper down any way that they can?

EMERSON: Well, there's no doubt that when Mr Slipper became the Speaker, Mr Abbott said: "Now he's your problem, Prime Minister". And they have obviously wanted to bring Mr Slipper down. If you want to do that, then be courageous enough; have enough guts to say that's what you're doing, instead of engaging in cover-ups. And that's what's happened.

Mr Abbott has refused to appear before the media to answer questions. I was a Labor frontbencher who claimed that there was a cover-up. Just the other day when the media was gathering for Mr Abbott, he made a short statement and as soon as a question relating to cover-up was asked, he closed down the press conference and left. And here we have even today Mr Abbott refusing to appear before the media and answer simple questions.

COVENY-GARLAND: It just strikes me as bizarre, as you say, saying "no specific knowledge". I mean, those words in themselves, it just doesn't make sense. You'd either say, 'Well, yes, this happened', or, 'No, I don't know'. But "no specific knowledge": it's very general, isn't it?

EMERSON: It's a very clever way of trying to deny the truth, and the truth is they did have knowledge. If you had no knowledge, then you would say, 'I didn't know anything about it'. That's fine. If you did have knowledge, then what's wrong with saying that, 'Yes, Mal Brough was involved in this. He met Mr Ashby three times; they helped with the preparation of the affidavit'. Why did they seek to conceal that? And I would imagine the answer is that they wanted it to look like a bolt from the blue from Mr Ashby about which the Liberal National Party has had no knowledge.

The LNP did have knowledge of it. Not only did it have knowledge of it, it was involved in assisting Mr Ashby. Now, I don't have a problem with the situation of Mr Ashby going to someone else, looking for support – assistance, if he was distressed, but he goes to the LNP candidate, or likely candidate against Mr Slipper. Why wouldn't you go to a counsellor; why wouldn't you go to a legal advisor, instead of going to a politician who is a bitter rival of his employer, Mr Slipper?

COVENY-GARLAND: And, James Ashby – of course, he's the chap who threw the mobile phone at one point, because he wasn't happy with something. Going back a few years, he actually made threatening phone calls against an announcer in our network – in the Super Network – on one of the FM stations, and was convicted of that. And the judge actually said, 'If that call had gone to air, you would be behind bars'. So, he just seems to strike me as � it's all a bit odd.

EMERSON: Well, it is a bit odd, and Mr Ashby, in throwing that mobile phone into the bushes, was purportedly indignant about the line of questioning against his boss – that is, Mr Slipper. But Mr Ashby, at that time, or around that time, was obviously preparing to make a major complaint against Mr Slipper.

Now, let's be clear: I do not, and will never condone, sexual harassment. What I am confused about is the fact that the LNP – that is, the Liberal National parties, led by Mr Abbott – has consistently sought to conceal the fact that they were involved in these processes. Mal Brough's not just an obscure member of the LNP who has an interest up in the Sunshine Coast. He is the favoured pre-selection candidate for the Liberal National Party against Mr Slipper.

Moreover, it's been revealed that Mr Ashby has been promoting on social media another potential candidate against Mr Slipper; this time a person called Peta Simpson. Now Peta Simpson is a woman who is being supported for that pre-selection by Barnaby Joyce. And, in fact, he has been into Fisher supporting Peta Simpson. So why is Mr Ashby, as an employee of Mr Slipper, also promoting Peta Simpson? And this goes back to February, before many of these allegations against Mr Slipper were made.

I mean, there are just so many questions to answer here. And the one person who won't answer any questions is the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

COVENY-GARLAND: Should there be some sort of an inquiry into all of this? And I will say, quite frankly, I think that if Mal Brough had come out in the first instance – or if James Ashby had said, 'look, I went to ask him what I should do', in the first instance – we probably wouldn't be talking about it. But because it seems like there's been some sort of a cover-up, then it makes you think: well, what else are we going to find out in the next couple of weeks? As if there's more that will keep coming out.

EMERSON: And I agree with you entirely. I'm happy to say that if Mr Ashby – for reasons best known to himself – but if Mr Ashby had chosen Mr Brough, and went to Mr Brough for support as a former LNP member; that is, Mr Ashby, a former LNP member, goes to Mr Brough for support, knowing he's a bitter rival of Mr Slipper – and Mr Brough then says, 'I'll arrange counselling, and I will send to you someone with legal expertise�, I could understand that.

But, instead of doing it once, he met him three times. And Mr Brough is saying it's had nothing to do with his aspirations for the seat of Fisher. Well for goodness sake, it's becoming a situation of insulting the intelligence of the Australian people. And only last weekend, Mr Brough was asked about his knowledge of an affidavit, and he denied knowledge of the affidavit.

He said today that he denied "specific knowledge" of it, or that he was involved in its preparation, or that he had seen the final version of the affidavit. Well he was asked about this just last weekend, and why then wouldn't you say, 'look, I did know of the existence of this affidavit; in fact I helped the young man, because I thought he needed some help'. But, again, he has sought to conceal the truth just as Mr Abbott has, just as Mr Pyne has. And we know that they are very worried about this, because Mr Abbott refuses to turn up to a proper press conference.

If Mr Abbott had nothing to hide, why is Mr Abbott hiding from the media? He's just hoping that it will blow over.

COVENY-GARLAND: Well, I don't like his chances. Do you think that heads will roll within the Coalition because of this?

EMERSON: I doubt it, because I think that there are a lot of very senior members of the Coalition who knew what was going on. This is exactly why Mr Abbott did say at the outset that he had "no specific knowledge", and Mr Pyne used exactly the same terminology. They obviously knew. They couched it in these careful terms, and frankly that's when I started getting curious about this.

As soon as politicians start using weasel words and trying to be economical with the truth, you know that there's a chance that they are trying to cover something up; and so it has been confirmed that they have been. They have been trying to conceal the truth from the Australian public.

COVENY-GARLAND: So, what's the future for Peter Slipper, do you think? Just a matter of waiting to get to the end of this matter?

EMERSON: Well, with Mr Slipper, as with anyone, firstly he's entitled to a presumption of innocence. Second, there are now processes underway in relation to the two substantive claims against him. One is a criminal matter relating to allegations of misuse of Cabcharge, which he strenuously denies. Let that take its course.

Similarly, we'll now be in a situation, of course, where the allegations of sexual harassment, which are civil in nature, should also take their course without interference. And I would hope that there will be no interference whatsoever by the Coalition in any of this. They have sought to put pressure on other investigations relating to other matters, but fundamentally we should apply to everyone the presumption of innocence and allow independent investigations and processes to take their course.

COVENY-GARLAND: And, just one more for you, before you go: looking forward to the Budget on Tuesday?

EMERSON: Yes, I am, and this is a very important document. I suppose they all are, and we do say that every year, but this is a return to surplus and a return to surplus is important in giving the Reserve Bank the capacity to have a further look at interest rates. They have been coming down. That's a good thing for mortgage holders; it's a good thing for small business; it's a good thing for confidence generally. Now the Reserve Bank cash rate is much lower: it's 3.75 per cent, compared with 6.75 per cent when this Government came to office. So they have come down a long way; we just want to give the Reserve Bank the capacity to look at further reductions if they think that is right.

COVENY-GARLAND: Fantastic. Well it's been great to catch up with you this afternoon. Thank you so much for giving us your time.

EMERSON: Okay, thanks Diane.

COVENY-GARLAND: Thank you. That's the Federal Trade Minister, Dr Craig Emerson. And very interesting: this is just crazy, all this stuff happening with Peter Slipper and James Ashby, and now Mal Brough's name's in the ring. Hmm.

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