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One Nation, #aviation policy and James Ashby

One Nation, #aviation policy and James Ashby deserves some investigation as the industry approaches a critical point in it’s future.

The numbers in the Australian Senate are critical and the way #casa has upset so many people, many of whom have become One Nation supporters, deserves quick scrutiny.

Dick Smith was one of the first, who many would consider to be an avid supporter of the Nationals or Liberals, to start a dialogue with One Nation. Of course it is well known that Dick Smith is a very vocal and critical of #casa, #airservices and #atsb.

The history of #pelair with #casa and #atsb being caught out by the senate committee is well know to #onenation. That #casa is attempting to get out of the proper #asrr recommendations to the Senate is well know by the industry with calls to immediately dump the #casa regulations and move to the #USFARs.

One Nation at present are putting together policy documents for over 20 policy areas.

#aviation is one of those.

The following article in Saturday’s Australian magazine is particularly incisive showing Ashby and his history leading to the election of four Senators to the Australian Parliament.

James Ashby is no stranger to controversy. Now, as Pauline Hanson’s key aide, he is still ruffling feathers.

The Weekend Australian Magazine, February 4-5, 2017

Story: Jamie Walker

In quiet moments, James Ashby has been known to wonder whether he would have been better off staying on the strawberry farm at Beerwah in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. His friend Val Bradford, the woman who started him out in politics with Queensland’s Liberal National Party, told him not to go near that man, the local federal MP Peter Slipper, and then sighed in heartfelt resignation when he became chief adviser to a battle-scarred Pauline Hanson three years later. While admiring what he has achieved, Bradford suspects Ashby would be happier with a simpler life.

But that’s not Ashby’s way. Never has been, probably never will be. There are those who say he is like a shark, perpetually in motion, scheming, plotting, his eye on the next chance. In barely half a decade in politics he’s been instrumental in bringing down a Speaker of parliament, Slipper – and in the fallout inadvertently destroying the comeback to office of former cabinet minister Mal Brough. Few advisers have stirred such controversy or divided opinion more sharply.

Those close to him, however, insist he is nothing like the calculating operator he has been made out to be: to them, he is “our James”, charming, chatty, funny, loyal. “I worry about him,” says ­Bradford, 78. “I’ve always found him to be a decent person. He comes from a good family; he is interesting, he’s very interested in other people.” She pauses, gathering her thoughts. “But I have felt sorry for him at times. The things that have ­happened… turned James into a different person.”

Smooth-faced at 37, whippet thin and by reputation whip smart, Ashby is said to be the brains behind Hanson and her resurgent One Nation party. When just about everyone had given up on her, he filled her diary with media appearances and told her to smile when the tough questions came. Tapping his experience in regional radio, he ­committed the threadbare party to an expensive regional advertising campaign in Queensland. It helped propel Hanson and a running mate, Malcolm Roberts, into the Senate last July, along with candidates from NSW and Western Australia.

With Hanson at the 2016 election.

Yet to the acute frustration of the Canberra insiders who need to take Ashby’s measure, few beyond a protective inner circle know what he is really like. What’s now dubbed “Ashbygate” – his pursuit of Slipper for alleged sexual harassment, a long and messy case described by then prime minister Tony Abbott as a “squalid, sordid, miserable period in our national life” – took a heavy personal toll. The outgoing young man people would quickly warm to is a closed book. He works 80-hour weeks and is obsessively private. His ­reputation, however, is larger than life.

In crediting him for her success, Hanson has referred to Ashby as her adopted son (“I can’t sack him, he’s too valuable,” she recently voiced), while her embittered former friend and ally of two ­decades, Ian Nelson, calls him the “anti-Christ” of politics and warns he will destroy her and the party.

Internally, One Nation is divided over the power he wields as His Mistress’s Voice. Ashby is the gatekeeper to Hanson and the crucial bloc of votes she controls in the Senate. When the ­Government wants to talk terms on its legislative program, he is on speed dial for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s emissaries. One way or another, a lot is being said about him.

He professes to hate the attention. His only comment on the record for this story is: “I am not the story – Pauline is the story.” This is exactly what political staff are meant to say; the orthodoxy is that when they make the headlines, it’s time to go. Yet Hanson has stuck fast, defending Ashby in public when he was accused of hurling a phone at a female colleague in a fit of pique, and she has ruthlessly cut loose those in the party who dare to criticise him.

With Peter Slipper in 2012.

Ashby tells journalists they need to earn his respect if they want their calls returned, which they do, because he is at the centre of one of the biggest political stories going. One Nation defines the ­dissenting spirit of the age, repudiating the elites and established order. Yet if it is to shake off a ­dysfunctional past and provide Hanson with the stable platform she needs, it will be up to Ashby to mortar over the cracks that crisscross the shaky edifice. Her success will then become his.

Give Ashby his due: he always seems to have known the score. In one of their now-infamous text exchanges from October 2011, when Slipper was buttering him up to join his personal staff, dropping the C-word in reference to an LNP rival and making crude comments about women’s genitals, Ashby explained that he didn’t want offensive comments attached to him online, in case he ever ran for a seat in parliament. Slipper: “You are a bad boy indeed! And your honesty is refreshing in my world where duplicity seems sadly to be the order of the day!”

Ashby: “I think I’ll either be badly burnt in politics or do very well.”

It’s been a tough 12 months for Val Bradford after two rounds of surgery and recuperation. She doesn’t get out and about on the Sunshine Coast as much as she used to. Still, the politics bug is hard to shake. She has been involved in the Queensland National Party and its successor, the LNP, for nearly 40 years, and is founder and chairwoman of the LNP’s Beerwah-Mooloolah branch.

Her little group gets together every two months on a Thursday night, and Bradford seldom misses a meeting. People like her are the heart and soul of a political party: they operate in the grassroots, not the marbled halls of power. She writes the local newsletter and encourages small businesses to donate. When an election rolls around, she helps arrange volunteers for letterbox drops and polling booths. She is also a talent spotter for the LNP: back in 2010, when Ashby was marketing manager of Gowinta Farms at Beerwah, she noted approvingly how he knew the who’s who of the local council and MPs. Smiling and ­happy-go-lucky, he would conduct tractor tours of the big strawberry and pineapple growing operation. Bradford knew his mother, Colleen, a popular local hairdresser. As a boy, James had wanted to be on the radio, not in politics. Music was his passion: classical, disco, you name it. His three sisters would tease him about a “half-arsed” attempt to learn the piano.

He had wanted to leave school early but his ­parents wouldn’t allow it. After completing year 12, he did some on-air work for community radio in Buderim, then landed a paying job with a commercial station in Roma, six hours’ drive to the west. But the 40ºC-plus heat was too much and he lasted barely six weeks. He returned to the Sunshine Coast, got a shot at the breakfast shift on ­Rockhampton’s Sea FM – which he left after falling out with a manager and being told he’d never work in radio again – and pitched up at the top-rating Triple M Brisbane. Talk about constant motion.

Leaving Newcastle court after being convicted of making threats over the phone.

By 2002, he was drive host “Jimmy” on Newcastle’s NXFM. Again there was trouble. Ashby clashed with a rival broadcaster, Paul Fidler (a.k.a. Jim ­Morrison at NEWFM), and made abusive calls to Fidler at home. The police got involved. Although Ashby claimed it had been a prank, Fidler didn’t accept his apology; he said Ashby had threatened him and he was afraid to go out. Ashby was charged with using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence, fined $2060 and put on a three-year good behaviour bond. Contritely, he told website radioinfo.com.au: “Just need to be a good boy for the next three years. That means if I upset you, just smack me out, don’t file a law suit.”

After moving to Townsville, he set up a printing business, which turned into another drama when regional internet provider Rawnet hit the wall in 2007, owing the company thousands for brochures. The job at Gowinta Farms must have felt like a ­respite. Owner Len Smith still speaks glowingly of Ashby, who was there from 2009 to 2011. “Good, reliable bloke,” he remembers.

At the Townsville races in 2006.

In addition to running the marketing and PR, Ashby did the rounds of the local politicians while lobbying to protect Smith’s water licences (a change in the rules in Victoria had spooked the farmer, and he wanted to head off any such move in Queensland). The backbiting antics of the LNP MPs would have provided a masterclass in the political dark arts. Slipper held the federal, Sunshine Coast-based seat of Fisher and was locked in a bitter feud with fellow Liberal Alex Somlyay in neighbouring Fairfax. At the state level, a long-serving Labor government was on its last legs under Anna Bligh, giving rise to feverish jockeying for LNP preselection. When Brough (one of the big-name Liberal casualties in the 2007 election that demolished John Howard’s 11-year government) moved to the area it was clear something was on: the membership of Bradford’s sleepy branch doubled. At her urging, Ashby was among those who signed on.

Soon, he was attracting notice. Her patronage would have opened doors for him. By early 2011, Slipper was dropping by the farm to chat and pick up strawberries. Ashby was chummy with an intern in Slipper’s office, Rhys Reynolds; a firm friendship was sealed when Ashby agreed to help Reynolds run (unsuccessfully) for a seat on the local council.

A whiz with video and social media, Ashby talked Slipper into posting his first YouTube clip. Slipper professed to be impressed by the nine views the clip attracted. “The best piece of media advice I have ever been given,” he gushed in a text to Ashby on September 4, 2011.

There was talk in the branches at the time, now confirmed by Bradford, that Ashby might make a useful successor to senior state frontbencher Mark McArdle in his safe LNP seat of Caloundra. ­Meanwhile, Slipper was still trying to convince Ashby to work for him. Ashby, who is openly gay, was receiving increasingly risqué texts from Slipper, who seemed keenly aware of the young man’s clean-cut good looks and sexual orientation.

Further into their exchange on the evening of October 10, 2011, Slipper confided how he liked the “real James not the plastic version who takes down funny videos”.

Ashby was evidently thinking about a political career even then. “I’m not plastic, just mindful I could easily f..k things up for myself before the race begins,” he texted back. Later, when he told Bradford that Slipper had offered him a job as an adviser, she was adamant that he should turn it down, despite her personal regard for the then Speaker. She recalls: “I said, ‘Don’t get mixed up with him, James. The dirt will wipe off on you if you go and work for Peter’.” Having spent time in Slipper’s office, McArdle’s wife, Judy, offered similar advice.

At his printing business in Townsville in 2007, which almost went broke when a client defaulted.

There is something about Ashby that brings out the mother in older women. Bradford is not the only one to have taken him under a wing. Hanson, 62, seems to be devoted to him, and that’s not really her style at all. Mostly, she’s had father figures in her political career: think David Ettridge, the now 71-year-old co-founder of One Nation, who went to jail with her for 11 weeks in 2003, before the party imploded. Or Ian Nelson, 66, Ashby’s fiercest critic. A former president, state director and national treasurer of One Nation, Nelson talked Hanson into returning to the fold five years ago, only to be thrust into the deep freeze when they clashed over Ashby. “He is destroying the party and he will destroy her if she doesn’t wake up,” Nelson says. The tensions boiled over last year when Nelson accused Ashby of breaking party rules by failing to refer the preselection of candidates to the state executive. Hanson sided with Ashby.

Hanson bristles at the suggestion Ashby pulls her strings – though as her chief of staff his responsibilities range across policy-making, political strategy and horse trading with the Government, ALP and senate crossbench on legislation. “The whole fact is they all wanted to control me,” she says of the men who have moved in and out of her political life. “James doesn’t control me. We work very well together as a team. But Ian and the rest… they all thought they could be the one there, guiding and telling me what to do. They have become… very vindictive about James Ashby.”

Few who deal with him behind closed doors in Canberra are willing to say what he’s like, and none would go on the record. That’s testament to the clout One Nation has in a knife-edge parliament, not regard for Ashby. The consensus is he’s clever – but aren’t they all in the shark pool? “He is across the detail and you have to admire how he’s positioned Hanson,” says one insider. Another makes the point: “I think it’s fair to say he has got a healthy ego. He always seems keen to communicate his importance… we’re sometimes confused whether he is speaking for himself or Hanson.”

With Hanson.

One senior figure in the Government has expressed irritation about having to go through Ashby to reach the One Nation leader. The issue of access is white hot inside a party that is ­increasingly split between an old guard of Ashby detractors and the crew Hanson assembled after her comeback.

Next month’s WA state election will be important to gauging whether she’s here to stay. However, the real test will be when her home state goes to the polls later this year or early next. Ashby will be judged on results, not hype, and the bar was set in One Nation’s breakthrough year, 1998. The loss of Hanson’s house seat – she had been elected two years earlier on a fluke, after the Liberal Party dumped her for disparaging indigenous welfare entitlements – was more than offset by the gain of a senator from Queensland and, at the state election, by the 21 per cent vote that propelled 11 One Nation MPs into the state parliament.

The Ashby of the day, David Oldfield, points out that One Nation was a much bigger player back then, with a membership rivalling that of the major parties and hundreds of active branches across the country. Broadly, its vote in 1998 was twice what Hanson achieved in her comeback last July. “Ashby may be a genius… I really don’t know,” says the ­former NSW MP, radio shock jock and newspaper columnist. “What I do know is that there is nothing in his makeup or background that equips him to run a national or state campaign.”

The wheels swiftly came off after the 1998 triumph, culminating in Hanson’s jailing and the party’s deregistration in Queensland (she and Ettridge were acquitted of electoral fraud by an appeals court). The spectacle of Oldfield’s acrimonious departure from the party, of the squabbling Queensland MPs quitting or being drummed out of state parliament one by one, has powerful echoes in today’s infighting in Hanson’s home division.

The rank-and-file was appalled when Nelson walked after a showdown at state executive last August: he had been a rock for two decades and loyalty counts among the Hansonites, as Ettridge emphasised in a ­statement to The Australian, ­slamming her for abandoning WA senator Rod Culleton, who was disqualified from parliament last month. This was like “leaving your wounded comrade on the ­battlefield,” he said. While Ashby wasn’t mentioned by name, Ettridge said Hanson’s actions were “poorly advised, petty and unnecessary”. The consequences were predictable: the headstrong Culleton left the party in a blaze of publicity.

Around the same time, Hanson had to go into bat for Ashby when he allegedly hurled his mobile phone at Culleton’s 58-year-old chief of staff, Margaret Menzel, during their now-famous altercation in Culleton’s parliament house rooms. While ­Hanson insisted the incident had been blown out of proportion by the media – Ashby had merely made an “underarm throw” – Menzel said he was “out of control”. Looking back, she says: “You get to the point that someone needs to tell James that this is not appropriate behaviour.”

Shan Ju Lin.

Former One Nation candidate Shan Ju Lin blamed Ashby for losing her state preselection in Queensland over her social media comments criticising homosexuality. Lin had posted that “abnormal sex behaviour leads to abnormal crime”, before being shown the door last month. “You can only communicate with Pauline through him,” she complained of Ashby. “He can effect control by either what he chooses to tell her or by omission. The support base of the party could rot away and she could be blissfully unaware until it is too late.”

Nelson’s disaffection is such that he wonders whether Ashby ever separated himself from the LNP and was working for or with the conservatives all along. “All he does is plot; plot and plan, and plot some more. He’s a manipulator,” the old stager says. Even by One Nation’s us-against-them standards, that is some conspiracy theory. ­Bradford rejects it outright.

She saw up close the impact of the court case and police investigations on her young friend, on Slipper and wife Inge – both of whom she knew and liked – and on Mal Brough, a “good man”. No one in their right mind would have courted such calamity. “I don’t think anybody came out of it as a winner,” she says. “I wish James had taken the advice I gave him and that several others gave him not to work for Peter. I think it wrecked him.”

Here’s the most twisted irony of all: it was ­Slipper himself who set the hares running about Ashby being a secret LNP plant, oblivious to how his then trusted aide was about to tip a bucket on him in public. Ashby finally joined the Speaker’s staff in December 2011, a month after Slipper sensationally quit the LNP to become an independent and take the Speaker’s chair. The $155,500 pay package was “too good to be true to pass up”, Ashby told a friend. When Bradshaw challenged him, he explained that it would be invaluable experience, and people in the LNP would understand. This was a big call given how livid conservatives were at Slipper’s abandonment of the party, which delivered Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government an extra vote on the floor of the lower house. Bradford said, “Be careful.”

After a busy parliamentary sitting day in March 2012, Slipper had the Hungarian ambassador to dinner in the Speaker’s Courtyard. There was goulash and Hungarian dancers and wine. Lots of wine. Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne had just left when, glass in hand, Slipper “out of nowhere… turned around and said that he believed I was a spy,” Ashby would later say in a statement.

The exchange is buried in the mountain of ­documents that his lawyers produced during the “Ashbygate” affair before the Federal Court. He sued for sexual harassment in April 2012, alleging that Slipper had made unwanted sexual advances –including a sleazy request that he shower with the door open while staying with the MP during his first trip to Canberra, claims denied by Slipper. When the Speaker’s suggestive texts were put into evidence and made public, his already precarious position was rendered untenable.

Peter Slipper in the House of Representatives.

Ashby seems to have been particularly affronted by the spy jibe. He says he told Slipper: “Well, jeez, [I] must be a bloody good spy. I didn’t even apply for the job, you offered it to me, remember.” Slipper told the court he believed Ashby had been “placed” in his office as payback for leaving the LNP to become Speaker.

Ashby gave evidence that he had minimal ­communication with the LNP in Queensland after going to work for Slipper, though he evidently tried to keep the lines open. Mark McArdle was now a minister in the new state government led by Campbell Newman and rarely took his calls. Bradford was just about his only link to the old LNP circle: as the media heat intensified, she stayed true. This is the first time since that fraught period that she has spoken publicly about their friendship.

On Thursday, March 29, 2012, they had coffee and Ashby revealed what had gone on with Slipper, showing her some of the texts. “He wasn’t the same James… he seemed very depressed,” she recalls. Ashby told her he wasn’t coping and she feared he might be suicidal. Plaintively, he asked whether she could think of anyone who could help him.

Having known Brough and his wife, Sue, for 20 years, she said he might be worth a try, despite the obvious conflict of interest. Ashby approached Brough for advice and the wheels were set in motion. On April 22, Slipper stood aside as Speaker, pending the outcome of an AFP investigation into Ashby’s allegations that he had misused publicly funded Cabcharge dockets. But the subsequent court proceedings ended up more of a trainwreck than a victory for anyone.

Ashby’s sexual harassment claim was thrown out by Justice Steven Rares of the Federal Court, who ruled it was an abuse of process intended to cause “significant public, reputational and political damage” to Slipper. Ashby successfully appealed the finding, the Full Bench of the Federal Court disagreeing with Justice Rares’ position, but Ashby dropped the case before it went back to court.

Soon afterwards, Slipper was convicted in the ACT Magistrates Court of three counts of fraudulently using taxi vouchers (later quashed on appeal in February 2015). By then, Inge was reported to have ended their marriage. Evidently devastated, Slipper was for a time under psychiatric care.

Having romped home in Fisher at the 2013 ­federal election, Brough was in the ministry of the new Coalition government, his political career back on track. Until, that is, the AFP began to look into the question of who had procured copies of ­Slipper’s official diaries for use in Ashby’s legal action. Brough and Ashby had their homes raided. As the pressure mounted, Brough stood aside, insisting he would be cleared. In February last year he announced he was quitting politics. The AFP put an end to the investigation eight months later, saying there was insufficient evidence to justify any prosecutions. As for Ashby, well, he had already landed on his feet.

Ashby’s house in Beerwah being raided in 2015 by the AFP searching for anything relating to the Liberal National Party, Peter Slipper, Mal Brough, Wyatt Roy or Christopher Pyne. Picture: Jamie Hanson

Exactly how he entered Hanson’s orbit is, ­typically, hotly in dispute. After splitting with ­Slipper, Ashby returned to the printing trade, ­setting up a new business on the Sunshine Coast. As state director of One Nation, Nelson was running party HQ in Brisbane with former musician Saraya Beric, 32, who would become another victim of the power struggle. Their roles have been assumed by ­Hanson’s brother-in-law, Greg Smith.

Nelson blames Ashby for turning Hanson against him, destroying a 20-year friendship. “He’s poisonous,” Nelson says. “He never spent a minute in the office doing administrative things… but he is the first to point out to Pauline how incompetent everyone else is supposed to be. He has done it to me, to candidates, to everyone else.”

According to Nelson, Ashby contacted him by phone in April 2015 as the dust was settling on the state election that sank Newman’s LNP government and buoyed Hanson after her near miss in the seat of Lockyer. He offered to do the party’s printing at cost – but there was a catch. Nelson says Ashby’s condition was that he be introduced to Hanson.

Those close to Ashby insist he made no such request. But he had another string to his bow: he’s a licensed pilot. Ashby offered to fly Hanson to campaign stops and they hit it off in the cramped cockpit of a Jabiru 230-D. The ownership has been the subject of conjecture: Ross Jones of political news site IndependentAustralia.net, and the author of a book on the Ashby-Slipper saga, recently revealed the aircraft had been registered in Ashby’s name on June 5, 2015, as One Nation began to take off.

Financial returns filed with the Electoral Commission of Queensland show that One Nation paid Ashby’s companies $17,200 for advertising and printing in the first six months of 2016 yet nothing for use of the plane, and there is no record that it was bought for or on behalf of One Nation. Ashby won’t say if he shelled out the $106,000 for a new Jabiru and One Nation’s most prominent donor, Bill McNee, denies he paid for it. The Melbourne property developer made disclosed payments of $58,720 during 2015 to the party, including a year’s rent in advance for the Albion head office. “My God, if I am going to buy a plane, I would buy one for myself,” he says. In a statement to this magazine, the Australian Electoral Commission said it did not comment on “the status of individual matters under review as part of the compliance program”.

Hanson’s Queensland 2016 campaign plane.

If the niggling questions about the plane and One Nation’s finances won’t go away, neither will the whispers about Ashby and his reputed hold over Hanson. His hand is evident in the repositioning of his boss. She no longer rails at the establishment like she once did. Instead, she boasts that her word is her bond – and in a hung senate, that counts mightily with Turnbull.

Ashby recently reached out to the Opposition, proposing in a new year letter to Bill Shorten’s chief of staff, Andrew Thomas, that communication between their offices be stepped up. What One Nation’s contrarian supporters make of this remains to be seen.

The coming Queensland election will tell how good Ashby is. The political momentum is all for team Hanson. But while recent polling has One Nation’s vote at 16 per cent, Oldfield has some key questions: How will this translate into seats? Where’s the ground game? The branch structure? The teams of volunteers and the electorate by electorate strategy?

Ashby’s feet may already be itching. Nelson says it is an “open secret” that he is positioning to run for the Sunshine Coast-based seat of Kawana, and it’s difficult to envisage how he could marry that with the workload of managing a state-wide campaign. He could have killed the story, but hasn’t. “Pure speculation,” he harrumphed last month to The Australian’s Michael McKenna. Perhaps he is not so attention shy after all.

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