Slipper says he's been vindicated by Ashby case ruling
UPDATE: EMBATTLED Sunshine Coast MP Peter Slipper says a judge's decision to throw out a sexual harassment case against him, vindicates his position that it was always a political attack against him.
" I am pleased at Justice Rares' decision to dismiss the proceedings brought against me by Mr Ashby,'' Mr Slipper said in a statement released a short time ago.
"I have always maintained that Mr Ashby's application was about manipulating the justice system to inflict damage on my reputation and political career and to advance the interests of the Liberal National Party.
"In his judgement, Justice Rares said he had "reached the firm conclusion that Mr Ashby's predominant purpose for bringing these proceedings was to pursue a political attack" against me.
"I feel vindicated by today's judgement.
"The past eight months have been extremely traumatic for my wife, family and me.
"I thank my wife, family, staff and friends for their support during this extraordinarily difficult time.''
Brough, Ashby in plot to bring down Slipper, judge rules
Sunshine Cost LNP candidate Mal Brough, James Ashby and fellow media adviser Karen Doane plotted to bring down Sunshine Coast MP Peter Slipper, a federal court judge has found.
The judge threw the sexual harassment case bought by Mr Ashby against Mr Slipper out of court today.
While not ruling on whether the allegations were true or not, Justice Steven Rares said Mr Asbhy had abused court processes.
Judge Rares ruled the Ashby court action was "for the predominant purpose of causing political damage to Mr Slipper".
Details of the case were leaked to Daily Telegraph journalist Steve Lewis before court proceedings began, prompting front page stories around the country.
Justice Rares said the sexual harassment case was an "abuse of the judicial process".
He dismissed the claim with costs against Mr Ashby.
Mr Ashby was red faced and looked down at his lap as the judgment was read out.
Mr Slipper's former adviser, who first made headlines after throwing the phone of a Sunshine Coast Daily journalist, had claimed that he was the target of "unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome sexual comments and unwelcome suggestions of a sexual nature".
Court documents were filled with hundreds of text messages in which he claimed Mr Slipper made lewd comments, including comparing female genitalia to shell fish, and asking ''can I kiss you both?''.
He claimed Mr Slipper hired him because he was gay and then attempted to victimise him when he turned down his advances.
Mr Slipper maintained the allegations were false and that the lawsuit was a character assault designed to "hurt my political career, hurt me financially, destabilise the government and destroy my marriage".
Justice Rares today upheld that argument, hitting out at the former advisor and his lawyers for making the claim for political and personal purposes.
As soon as the judgment had been read, Mr Ashby dashed out of court and into a meeting room with his legal team.
Mr Ashby told reporters outside the court it had been a "harrowing time" for him and his supporters.
"Since that date (April) no evidence at all has been heard on my substantive complaint against the former Speaker that he sexually harassed me.
"There has been a determined campaign to try and prevent the substantive allegations being heard and judged in open court and to put me to the maximum cost in pursuing justice."
Mr Ashby said his legal team would study the judgment in detail.
"But at this stage we intend to appeal this regrettable decision," he said.
Lawyers for Ashby 'shocked and disappointed' by decision
THE law firm which represented James Ashby says it plans to appeal the judgement.
"Whilst of course we respect the court's decision, we are shocked and disappointed by it,'' Michael Harmer, of Harmers Workplace Lawyers said.
"We will argue strongly on appeal that the conclusions in his Honour'sjudgment made about our conduct of the case are simply not justified by the evidence.
"Neither myself, nor this firm, are part of any conspiracy.
"Harmers Workplace Lawyers has over many years assisted thousands of individual,corporate and union clients to access justice.
"We have assisted James Ashby in that same way, as an individual who could not otherwise afford to run very expensive litigation in our courts.
"This is the sole reason we took on James Ashby's case. Politics played absolutely no role in the decision to take on James as a client,'' Mr Harmer said.
"As I swore in my affidavit, and as recognised by his Honour in his decision, my political views are not consistent with the conservative side of politics.
"We are a law firm, consciousof our professional obligations, and take no role in politics.
"As a firm, we will be examining all avenues to have this decision, and its comments, overturned through due judicial process."
Federal government welcomes decision
In welcoming the decision, a spokesperson for Attorney General Nicola Roxon said the Coalition would have "some serious questions to answer" over statements they made about Mr Ashby's claims.
"This shows how dangerously wrong and misleading Senator (George) Brandis can be in prejudging court matters," the spokesperson said.
Mr Slipper represented himself when the matter was heard in October.
Mr Ashby reached a $50,000 settlement with the Commonwealth, which he was suing for failing to provide a safe working environment.
KEY POINTS OF WHAT THE JUDGE SAID:
"Mr Slipper applied to have these proceedings dismissed as an abuse of the process of the Court.
Mr Slipper contended that Mr Ashby's predominant purpose in bringing the proceedings against him, in combination with Karen Doane (another member of Mr Slipper's staff), the Hon Malcolm Brough (who was seeking to contest Mr Slipper's seat for the LNP at the next federal election), Steve Lewis (a journalist, employed by one of News Limited's subsidiaries as the national political correspondent for the Daily Telegraph), Anthony McClellan (a media consultant engaged by Mr Ashby) and Mr Ashby's lawyers, Michael Harmer and his firm, Harmers was, in effect, to inflict damage on Mr Slipper's reputation and political career in order to assist the LNP and Mr Brough and, so, to advance Mr Ashby's and Ms Doane's prospects of advancement or preferment by the LNP.
The present application has been bitterly fought.
The legal principles at the heart of Mr Slipper's central allegation that the proceeding is an abuse of process are not in doubt. The Courts have an unlimited power over their own processes to prevent those processes being used for the purpose of injustice.
The originating application filed on 20 April 2012 was in an irregular and unusual form. It sought damages for breach of contract and should have claimed the relief that Mr Ashby sought while being accompanied by a statement of claim
The originating application made a number of serious allegations concerning Mr Slipper's conduct including that:
Mr Slipper had sexually harassed Mr Ashby in the course of his employment (the sexual harassment allegations);
- in 2003 Mr Slipper had a relationship of a sexual nature with a younger male member of his staff and an encounter between them had been recorded on a video, a viewer of which had concluded that the relationship was consensual (the 2003 allegations); and
Mr Ashby had been forced on three occasions to watch Mr Slipper sign multiple Cabcharge vouchers during his employment and hand them to the driver of a vehicle in which they both travelled and that Mr Ashby intended to report these matters to the Australian Federal Police (the Cabcharge allegations).
On the same day as the originating application was filed, Vanda Carson, a journalist from the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper published by News Limited or one of its subsidiaries, sought and obtained access to the "statement of claim" under r 2.32 of the Federal Court Rules. Later on 20 April 2012, Mr Lewis, sent a text message to Mr Slipper saying he would like to contact him for his comment on the allegations in "court documents".
Mr Lewis and Mr Ashby knew that Mr Slipper was then overseas. The next day many of the allegations about Mr Slipper's conduct that were made in the originating application received significant publicity in the media.
ON THE TEXT MESSAGES
What is singular about all of the text message exchanges that Mr Ashby had with his friends and others in the period prior to the commencement of these proceedings is the lack of any complaint by him of feeling sexually harassed. And his friends' texts had no words of comfort for Mr Ashby as a victim of some traumatic experience of that kind.
The exchanges between Martin, Mr Nagle, Ms Hubbard and Mr Ashby on 3 and 4 February 2012 do not read like those concerning a man claiming to feel sexually harassed or emotionally distressed by such conduct.
Rather they read as if the participants were discussing the political ramifications of Mr Ashby revealing material that was sexually and politically embarrassing and that would compromise Mr Slipper and his position as Speaker if it appeared in the public domain.
At least initially, Mr Ashby was contemplating that Mr McArdle, an LNP politician, would use the text messages against Mr Slipper's political interests - hence his text that this did not "empower me once the information is passed on ... Will I be rewarded or condemned?".
Read in its context with all his texts, I am satisfied that if Mr Ashby were the victim of sexual harassment he would not have speculated with his friend in this way about whether he would be rewarded by revealing it.
As Dr Phillips observed, on several occasions Mr Ashby joined in text conversations with Mr Slipper that were "somewhat provocative and sexualised".
He observed, and I find, that Mr Ashby on occasion "added to the frission of the interchange". Thus, in context, the mere fact that Mr Slipper commenced his text discussion on 26 February 2012 of Mr Ashby's work for LNP candidates with a sexualised reference, is not necessarily demonstrative of sexual harassment or victimisation.
In all the circumstances I am not persuaded that it was on this occasion. Had Mr Ashby been upset by Mr Slipper's reference to another person saying he was a "twink" there is no doubt he would have remonstrated then and there with Mr Slipper as he forcefully did for some time in the later text exchanges on 26 February 2012 on Mr Ashby's political activities.
ON THE MEDIA AND MAL BROUGH
I am also satisfied that Mr Ashby and (former media adviser Karen) Doane by about 29 March 2012 were in a combination with Mr Brough to cause Mr Slipper as much political and public damage as they could inflict on him.
They believed and hoped that Mr Lewis would publish unfavourable stories about Mr Slipper concerning whatever they could help Mr Lewis find in relation to Mr Slipper's use of his travel entitlements in the areas of Mr Lewis' curiosity.
That is why each of Mr Ashby, Ms Doane and Mr Brough were anxious to provide Mr Lewis with the diary entries he sought. It is not clear whether Mr Brough had passed on to Mr Lewis Mr Ashby's foreshadowed complaint of sexual harassment in late March 2012.
They also believed that Mr Lewis, and the media generally, would report on any legal proceeding against Mr Slipper in which Mr Ashby alleged sexual harassment.
At this time, Mr Ashby and Ms Doane saw Mr Brough as their means of obtaining favour from the LNP in seeking new employment.
It was obvious that once what Mr Ashby was then planning became public, he and Ms Doane could no longer work as members of Mr Slipper's personal staff.
The relationship of trust and confidence (if it still subsisted) between Mr Slipper and the two staff members would have been destroyed by their acts of calculated disloyalty.
The timing of Mr Ashby's and Ms Doane's actions immediately after 24 March 2012 is also significant.
They believed that new job opportunities would open up to them after the LNP won government in Queensland on the weekend of 24-25 March 2012.
If Mr Ashby could discredit Mr Slipper politically by helping Mr Brough and using Mr Lewis, he perceived that would gain favour for him and Ms Doane in the eyes of the LNP.
Mr Russell QC may have disabused Mr Ashby of that perception on 6 April 2012. However, both Mr Ashby and Ms Doane acted on that basis before 6 April 2012 and she, at least, continued to do so later.
THE CABCHARGE ALLEGATIONS
In my opinion, Mr Ashby included the Cabcharge allegations in the originating application for the predominant purpose of injuring Mr Slipper and assisting a political attack on him to benefit Mr Brough and the LNP.
This is emphasised by his decision to include the assertion that he intended to report the matter to the Australian Federal Police.
Mr Russell QC had told him, in Mr Brough's presence, two weeks before the originating application was filed that he was free to do so if he was concerned about Mr Slipper's conduct.
Mr Ashby did not do so. Instead, he waited to announce his "intention" to do so in the originating application knowing that this would be reported in the media.
His statement that he "intended" to make the report was itself made two months after the alleged conduct last occurred and over one month after Mr Ashby had requested that he be allowed to travel at his own expense with Mr Slipper on an overseas trip.
There is no evidence to suggest that Mr Ashby ever asked Mr Slipper for or received any explanation of what he pleaded as being "questionable conduct".
Mr Ashby's delay, and most particularly his request to accompany Mr Slipper overseas, point to his predominant purpose as being to seek publicity for the allegations so as to damage Mr Slipper and assist the latter's political opponents.
They were allegations that were calculated to raise the spectre that Mr Slipper had engaged in criminal conduct, without actually asserting that he had done so.
THE JUDGE'S CONCLUSION
Having read all of the text messages on Mr Ashby's mobile phone, as Mr Ashby's senior counsel invited me to do, as well as the other evidence, I have reached the firm conclusion that Mr Ashby's predominant purpose for bringing these proceedings was to pursue a political attack against Mr Slipper and not to vindicate any legal claim he may have for which the right to bring proceedings exists.
Mr Ashby began planning that attack at least by the beginning of February 2012. As Mr Ashby and Ms Doane agreed in their texts of 30 March 2012 what they were doing "will tip the govt to Mal's [Brough] and the LNP's advantage": .
It may be a coincidence that Mr Ashby suggested to Mr Slipper the idea of becoming Speaker just as Mr Brough began to move towards challenging Mr Slipper for LNP pre-selection for his seat and Mr Ashby ended up in an alliance in late March 2012 with Mr Brough to bring down Mr Slipper after he became Speaker.
It is not necessary to make any finding about this or about whether Mr Slipper did sexually harass Mr Ashby in any of the ways alleged. It is also not necessary to consider whether these proceedings are "vexatious proceedings" within the meaning of r 6.02 or if that expression has a different meaning in r 26.01(1)(b) under which the Court can give summary judgment if "the proceeding is frivolous or vexatious".
For the reasons above, I am satisfied that these proceedings are an abuse of the process of the Court.
The originating application was used by Mr Ashby for the predominant purpose of causing significant public, reputational and political damage to Mr Slipper.
It contained the scandalous and irrelevant 2003 allegations and assertion that Mr Ashby intended to report to the police Cabcharge allegations.
To allow these proceedings to remain in the Court would bring the administration of justice into disrepute among right-thinking people and would be manifestly unfair to Mr Slipper.
COURT COSTS AWARDED AGAINST JAMES ASHBY
Mr Ashby should be ordered to pay Mr Slipper's costs of the proceedings. Mr Slipper is entitled to an order for his costs of the proceedings subject to those being set off against the order for costs I made against him on 17 August 2012. If any special order for costs is sought in consequence of the orders I will make today either party may apply within 7 days.