Amid the fury, a quiet execution

The chain of events that ended with Peter Slipper's resignation as speaker of the House of Representatives began when Julie Bishop turned to page five of The Australian Financial Review last Friday.

As she read a court story headlined "Texts reveal sexist gibes," disgust welled in the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. The piece said: "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."

Bishop did not keep her anger private. She told last Saturday's Herald: "This is a clear challenge for the Prime Minister to withdraw her support for Peter Slipper as Speaker because of his obscene, sexist and misogynist remarks."

Slipper had stood aside from occupying the Speaker's chair while the court heard the claim against him of sexual harassment of Ashby, but remained in the post and on full pay.

On Monday morning Bishop declared on ABC News Radio that his position was "untenable".

She carried her anger into the Coalition's shadow cabinet meeting on the same day. "We have to take action against Peter Slipper because his position is untenable," Bishop said. "I can have no respect for him at all."

The Coalition already loathed Slipper. He was a Liberal turncoat. He'd taken the Speaker's job for the extra money - $143,000 a year on top of a backbencher's standard $190,000 - and the prestige.

By taking the post, Slipper had cost the Coalition a vote in a knife-edge chamber. And he had liberated a Labor vote, that of Labor's Harry Jenkins, who was freed from the speaker's chair to vote on legislation in support of the Gillard government. So he had altered the balance by two votes in favour of Labor.

The shadow cabinet agreed with Bishop and resolved to act against him. It was a momentous decision.

Beyond the inner circle of the opposition leadership, other parliamentarians were growing alarmed. The Federal Court published on its website on Monday the full log of Slipper's text exchanges, some 200 pages worth.

A wave of revulsion and indignation started to build as the media disclosed more and more. Apart from the crudity and the offensiveness and the flirtations with Ashby, there was a key exchange that challenged his impartiality as speaker. Rejoicing in his decision to eject the Liberals' Sophie Mirabella from the House, he repeated Ashby's labelling of her as an "ignorant botch".

Looking through the worst of the texts, alarms began to ring in Tony Windsor's head.

The independent member for the NSW seat of New England is a crucial swing vote in the House. Like the independent member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, he is pledged to support the Gillard government on votes of confidence and supply but otherwise free to vote as he chooses.

Windsor's position had been that, if the court cleared Slipper of the claim against him of sexual harassment, Slipper could resume full duties as speaker.

But now Windsor told the ABC's Lateline on Monday night that he was concerned that the messages might damage Slipper's ability to return to the speaker's chair. He said he would seek to meet Slipper the next day to discuss the matter.

He did. They met at 1pm. He asked if he had actually written the messages or whether there might be some other explanation. "He didn't deny them," Windsor related later to the Herald.

"I told him I found the text messages pretty hard to handle. I told him that they would have an effect on his capacity to continue as speaker."

The meeting was interrupted. Less than an hour later, at 2.02pm, Tony Abbott stood at the dispatch box in the House and said: "I seek leave to move that, as provided for by section 35 of the constitution, the speaker be removed from office immediately."

The government was taken by surprise. In spite of the public signs of a gathering storm, the manager of government business in the House, Anthony Albanese, and the Prime Minister had discussed Slipper's situation before 2pm and had simply failed to anticipate a motion to remove him.

They had thought the opposition would respect the processes of the Federal Court, which had reserved its judgment in the sexual harassment matter. But politics has a long and inglorious record of riding roughshod over the courts.

Julia Gillard, for instance, had declared Julian Assange guilty of an "illegal act" under Australian law in publishing secret US cables on WikiLeaks. A brace of ministers publicly had smeared Ashby's motives and character in bringing a case against Slipper.

The principle of "due process" commonly is treated as a matter of political convenience rather than jurisprudential principle in the Federal Parliament. By both sides.

For Windsor, it was the text messages that had convinced him Slipper had become untenable. For Oakeshott, it was the moment Abbott moved the motion: "I'd been uncomfortable about Peter Slipper for a long time but I'd been in the camp of not making a political judgment on a court matter," he told the Herald.

"But his situation became untenable for me the moment Tony Abbott stood up in Parliament and moved a motion of no confidence against him."

It was "game over" for Slipper, said Oakeshott. "Almost half the members are expressing no confidence at the moment - it was a boil that had to be lanced and it had to be done quickly."

The parliamentary debate that received so much public attention this week raged, but it was essentially irrelevant to Slipper's fate. Abbott demanded that the House debate the motion; Gillard angrily threw the motion back in his face.

But as the parties assumed their partisan combat stances, the two men who would decide the matter weren't even listening.

"I went out and got coffee and a sandwich - I hadn't eaten all day," said Oakeshott. "It was going to be an 80-minute debate so I decided to take 20 minutes to work out my position."

Windsor left the House a few minutes later in search of Oakeshott. They bumped into each other outside in a courtyard. "I suggested to Rob that we go and see Slipper."

They didn't rehearse their lines. They walked into the Speaker's office while Gillard was delivering her blistering attack on Abbott on the TV screen in the background.

But Slipper's fate was already sealed. One way or another, he would be gone by the end of the day. The next hour would decide which way.

The independents found Slipper in an emotional state, and in something of a haze of confusion which they attributed to the antidepressants he was taking.

"I've always defended Peter's due process argument, but I said to him that even if the court finds nothing against you, you can't be in a position to resume the chair and have the respect of the Parliament any longer. We thought his best way forward was to resign, and we told him so."

Slipper, agitated and emotional, asked for two weeks. "We said it won't make any difference. It'll just keep going in politics and the media. It's not good for you, for your family, for the Parliament, for the nation for this to keep going.

"We said, Peter, we don't want to have to vote on this" to remove him. "You can do this with a degree of dignity, let your relatives know, prepare a statement. But it has to be done today."

They struck an agreement. The two independents promised to vote with the government to defeat Abbott's motion. Slipper would not be forced out by a vote of Parliament, a signal dishonour.

But their support was on condition that he announce his resignation by the end of the day. If Slipper reneged, said Oakeshott, "if there had been another no confidence motion the next day, I would have been part of the kill squad on the floor of the House."

Albanese arrived in the middle of the proceedings. Slipper left them to go to the toilet. "We explained to Albo that it was our way or the highway," said Windsor. "He talked for a moment about the court case, but I said 'who cares? He will probably get off but he's gone.'"

Albanese conferred separately for a few minutes with Slipper. All were concerned for his welfare and that of his staunchly loyal wife, Inge, but the die was cast.

Oakeshott and Windsor returned to the House in time to vote with the government. Abbott's motion was defeated by a single vote. Three hours later Slipper was hosting a Serbian cultural evening, complete with dancing and music, in his suite with the Serbian ambassador, Neda Maletic, his guest of honour. It was, said Oakeshott, "a Last Supper, Serbian style."

Slipper gave a speech in honour of Serbia, then excused himself and walked into the House. He took the Speaker's chair for the last time and announced his resignation. Oakeshott bumped into the Serbian ambassador the next day: "She was shaking her head and wondering what had just happened." She was not alone.

In last week's column I wrote that Gough Whitlam was the opposition leader who picked up a glass of water in the House and dashed its contents in the face of a minister. As a reader has pointed out, he was deputy opposition leader at the time.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.

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