By Mike SeccombeApril 27, 2012
Peter Slipper was known as Slippery Pete long before he snared the Speaker’s chair. But his limbo status now makes Labor’s hold on power very slippery indeed.
I don't even remember where that year's National Party federal conference was held. But one scene from it sticks in the memory.
It was outside the conference venue and Peter Slipper was standing alone on the kerb waiting, I believe, for a taxi. I was standing some distance away having a smoke with Geoff Mort, the tough-as-boots press secretary to the tough-as-boots National Party leader, Ian Sinclair. Mort glared at Slipper, and out of the side of his mouth, softly and venomously said to me:
"Look at that fucking Slipper, standing there with all his fucking mates."
That was in 1987, 25 years ago, which gives some idea how long and how widely Peter Slipper has been distrusted and disliked.
Slipper was a turncoat and a political wrecker way back then. The reason Mort despised him was that Slipper, at that stage in his first term as the National Party member for Fisher, based on the Queensland Sunshine Coast, had become an early rider aboard the Joh for Canberra bandwagon. For those too young to remember, or who have forgotten, the backstory was that Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the long-time leader of the horribly corrupt Queensland National Party government, had decided he would make a tilt at federal politics. Backed by his cronies in the Queensland branch of the party — and, incidentally, opposed by many other, decent federal members of the Queensland Party — he was intent on taking control of the federal Nationals, of whom Sinclair — Mort's boss — was leader.
It was a mad scheme, of course, but it had influential helpers, including the right-wing former head of Treasury, John Stone, and the heavyweights of The Australian newspaper: editor-in-chief Les Hollings, political commentator Katharine West and chief political correspondent Paul Kelly. (Declaration: I wrote a lot of the news stories for The Australian at the time, but not the commentary. To get more of the flavor of the times, see this recollection.
Between them all, they managed to split the federal Coalition, help the Hawke Labor Government to a record election win and forestall John Howard's Prime Ministership by nine years. Oh, and Slipper lost his seat in Parliament.
When he re-entered Parliament, six years later, Slipper came in as a Liberal MP.
He was re-elected in '96, '98, '01, '04, '07 and 2010. And in all that time, he never rose to any role higher than that of parliamentary secretary — until he sat in the Speaker's chair, of course — although he did serve on a swag of parliamentary committees and manage to get a fair number of overseas trips.
It's fair to say he was generally not well thought of. It was not a simple matter of ideology, either. It was personal.
We won't go into the history of his big travel and phone bills here; there has been plenty written about them of late. Nor will we go to the rumours about Slipper's extra-Parliamentary activities. As for his shifting political allegiances, well, they earned him the nickname "Slippery Pete".
Enough to state briefly his current predicament: he is under investigation for alleged misuse of Cabcharge dockets, which could lead to criminal action, and is accused of having sexually harassed a male staffer, a civil matter. He denies any wrongdoing on both matters.
So, to Prime Minister Julia Gillard's quote of the week:
"I don't claim to know Mr. Slipper personally or well," she said, "but I formed a professional judgment about his ability to do the job."
The implication was that she had made a naïve decision to put him into his role because she thought he would be good at it.
How utterly disingenuous. So what if she did not know him "personally"? She didn't have to be aware of what people were saying about Slipper — although it's hard to believe she could not have been — to know that elevating him to the Speakership was a very high-risk tactic. She knew about his ratting, in his very first term, on the National Party. She knew his judgment was such that he threw in his lot with Joh Bjelke-Petersen. She knew he'd been in trouble over expenses claims. She knew the Liberal Party wanted to be rid of him.
And the second sentence in her quote is a sad reflection on what passes for "professional judgment" in politics. Her professional judgment was that in Slipper she had found someone who would put personal ambition ahead of party loyalty. It was the same kind of professional judgment John Howard exercised in 1996, when his government engineered the defection of Labor Senator Mal Colston (forever remembered by Paul Keating's epithet the "quisling Quasimodo from Queensland") with the offer of the deputy presidency of the Senate.
These things never end well. In Colston's case, it ended with him being charged with defrauding the Commonwealth over travel claims, but dying of cancer before the matter could go to trial.
In Slipper's case, we don't know the endgame yet. But it looks almost certain to play out badly for the Gillard government, however it goes. As we all know, Labor holds power by just a whisker. Until Slipper's defection, the change of just one vote would have been enough to bring it down. Slipper's decision to rat on the Liberal Party doubled that margin of safety, by removing one of the Opposition's numbers. As Speaker, he does not have a vote in the normal proceedings of the house, a so-called "deliberative vote", but he has a casting vote in the event of a tie.
As Harry Evans, who was the Clerk of the Senate for more than 20 years until 2009, explains, even though Slipper has not been charged — much less convicted of anything — he is now deprived of any vote at all.
"That's because he still holds the office of Speaker, and the Constitution says the Speaker will not vote unless the votes are equally divided," he says.
But Slipper does not have the voting rights of an ordinary MP, either.
"He can't vote in the chamber while he still holds the office of Speaker," says Evans.
Instead the right to that casting vote, in the event of a tied vote on the floor, passes to the deputy Speaker.
"You can't have the deputy Speaker in the chair and the Speaker sitting in the chamber having a deliberative vote," says Evans.
In other words, Slipper's vote simply disappears, "unless he goes back into the chair".
Unsurprisingly, the Government argues that once the potential criminal matters are dispensed with — Slipper has now offered evidence that he did not misuse his travel entitlements, but he is not yet cleared — he should go back into the Speaker's chair.
Labor argues, with some justification, that the civil suit relating to the allegation of sexual harassment should not prevent him resuming his role. But that doesn't matter a whole lot; what matters is what the majority in the House of Representatives wants.
Of course the Coalition opposes Slipper's return. More importantly, so do at least two of the independent members on whom the Labor Government's survival depends: Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie.
Wilkie says, what's more, that he is prepared to personally move no confidence in Slipper if Labor tries to reinstate him.
Thus it appears that Slipper could spend a long time in limbo, as Speaker in name but not in function. Alternatively, the government could be forced to find a new Speaker, in which case Slipper would become again an ordinary MP. Status quo ante.
Except, Andrew Wilkie could no longer be relied upon to support the government. That's because Julia Gillard betrayed the deal they had, that in return for his support on confidence and supply votes, she would institute reforms of the poker machine industry.
So the net result of all Gillard's Machiavellian plotting to buy off Peter Slipper is that the government is in an even more precarious position than before.
Says Evans: "Of course, the Government could just say that in view of the situation they have no alternative but to go to an election.
"But being as unscrupulous as they are, I can't imagine that. They'd be determined to cling on as long as possible … [hoping] that none of the independents really want an election, because their seats would be in jeopardy."
And so now we have talk of the prospect of the Government's Budget being voted down, and Labor being forced to a mid-year election.
Ultimately, it seems to come down to one question: Just how angry is Andrew Wilkie with Gillard's treacherous abrogation of their deal on pokies?
And even if Wilkie proves not to be that angry, Labor's longer-term future looks bleak.
You just have to look at the polls to see the Coalition is streets ahead. The only real impediment to a crushing victory is the public perception of its leader, Tony Abbott.
Of course, Abbott only became leader by one vote. Slipper has previously boasted that if not for him, Tony Abbott would not have been elected leader. It would have been Malcolm Turnbull.
Peter Slipper will not go down as one of the great achievers of Australian politics. But one way or another, he’s had a huge impact on the fortunes of every one of the major parties.