Having survived political scandal and shrugged off the opprobrium of colleagues and rivals alike, the would-be federal member for Fisher accepts no limits to his ambition.
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Despite his military background, Mal Brough had no inkling he was about to fall victim to what he considered an ambush last October. When an indigenous woman from a television production company telephoned the former minister and asked him to take part in a documentary about the history of federal involvement in Aboriginal Australia, he agreed that his views should be recorded for posterity. After all, he is proud of his part in the 2007 Northern Territory intervention. Brough, who usually mistrusts the media, even opened up his mountainside home in the Sunshine Coast hinterland to the production team.
On the assigned day, the camera crew arrived first, to rearrange the furniture and set up the klieg lights. As filming was about to commence, the interviewer strode through the door. It was John Pilger, but Brough did not recognise the veteran leftie filmmaker. The way Brough tells it, the interview did not go well. He took exception to Pilger’s accusations that the child sex abuse highlighted in the NT government’s ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report was but a flimsy pretext for a federal takeover. A question purportedly implying that he had tried to profit personally from contacts he had built up during the intervention – a suggestion he strenuously denies – also raised his ire. The whole encounter, he thought, was part of a hatchet job.
Members of the production crew have a different recollection of the interview. It had started happily, with Brough taking photographs of the crew to show to his absent wife. The crew-members were struck by how much he revelled in the attention. When Pilger arrived, Brough was friendly, even jocular.
The exchanges with Pilger were apparently civil. When the filmmaker brought up a report in the Australian that suggested Brough was scouting out business opportunities on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin, Brough denied the story and they moved on. But later Brough started venting at the producer, Amy McQuire, who had set up the interview. His whole demeanour changed. He started to speak in short, staccato sentences, as if addressing a subordinate. It was only when Pilger intervened that Brough backed down and apologised.
The whole episode evidently fuelled his sense that the media is out to get him: that he is the victim, as the headline writers might put it, of a kind of “Brough injustice”. His many critics would argue that the encounter revealed essential traits of his character: vanity, hot-headedness, tetchiness, a martial air and a tendency to present a version of events at odds with the recollections of others.
It also showed that Brough does not even have to leave home to become embroiled in controversy. It is on his doorstep, of course, in the Queensland electorate of Fisher, where his schemes to oust the sitting member, former speaker Peter Slipper, brought an excoriating rebuke from a federal judge last December for conducting “a political attack” with two of Slipper’s aides to “advance the interests of the LNP (Liberal National Party of Queensland)”.
Afterwards, Brough refused interviews with all but journalists from the local Sunshine Coast press, to whom he initially lied about his role in the campaign to destroy Slipper. But stealth has never come naturally to him. In 2003, as workplace minister, he planned to launch an armed forces recruitment drive by descending on Brisbane’s South Bank from a navy helicopter in full combat gear (in the end, he made less of a daredevil entrance aboard a naval barge).
Sure enough, scandal came knocking again when it emerged that the organiser of one of his fundraisers had circulated a spoof menu featuring “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail”, with “small breasts, huge thighs” and a “big red box”. His attempts to limit damage only caused more. After the restaurateur admitted blame, Brough made repeated efforts to contact a woman in Victoria whose letter of complaint continued to rankle. “Since the full story came out many have apologised to me both publicly via the media and personally,” he wrote to Amanda Boyd, whom he had tried to telephone three or four times. “Will you admit to having jumped to conclusions and do the same?” Ms Boyd, who did not return his calls, told Fairfax Media: “I didn’t want to talk to him because it just seemed crazy lengths to go to get an apology from a nobody.”
This is not the kind of election campaign that Brough presumably war-gamed in his mind. He keeps on shooting himself in the foot.
Ask any Canberra press gallery journalist about Mal Brough, and they will usually recall the “Pollies vs Press” cricket match of early 2001. In those days, teams were organised along party political lines. (Later on, Kevin Rudd’s workaholic demands ruled out some Labor members, so the pollies now field a bipartisan XI.) Brough, a good medium-pace bowler and swashbuckling top-order batsman, was a star of the Coalition side.
John Howard’s Liberals were widely expected to lose the looming federal election, and relations between the Coalition and the press gallery were at a low ebb. Brough took out his feelings on the press gallery’s bowling, but as a half-century beckoned he mistimed a ball from Mark Ludlow of the Australian Financial Review, and it rapped him on the pads. The convention in friendly matches, unless the batsman is plum in front of the wicket, is that the LBW rule does not apply. But News Ltd’s Malcolm Farr, who was umpiring at the other end, slowly raised his finger. At first, Brough refused to leave the wicket. Phil Coorey, the wicketkeeper, feared he might end up with a Gray–Nicolls embedded in his head. When Brough finally stormed off, he hurled invective from the boundary. “He threw his bat and pads to the ground and demanded his wife follow him to their car,” Farr later recalled, and “he took off in that car at great speed”. Brough returned about 30 minutes later, and reportedly made the startling announcement that a bit of aggro was good for the sex life.
Brough did not enhance his reputation for sportsmanship at a return fixture. The Pollies were a player down, and Brough’s young son helped out as a substitute fielder. When the youngster fumbled a ball, his father’s torrent of criticism made onlookers wince. Farr believes Brough’s unsporting behaviour is characteristic: “He does not always feel bound by accepted modes of conduct. He showed he considered his personal interests much more important than agreed process.”
At the time, Brough was unhappy his elevation to the Howard ministry had been put on hold after one of his staffers was discovered to have falsely enrolled in his electorate before the 1998 election. ‘Liberal voting scandal brings down rising star’, was how the Sydney Morning Herald headlined its January 2001 story on the allegations. Brough was cleared of wrongdoing, but six months later, after finally taking up his post as employment minister, a string of mini-scandals kept him in the parliamentary spotlight. He was accused of breaching the ministerial code of conduct by inviting a major provider to the government’s Job Network scheme to a Liberal Party fundraiser. He had to defend himself against allegations that a friendly businessman ran training courses that, unbeknown to customers, channelled money to the Liberal Party. There were accusations that his department ran “phantom” job schemes that he was alleged to have known about for months before acknowledging them publicly.
The fact that Brough survived these scandals fuelled a counter-narrative: that he was destined for high office, perhaps even the Lodge. Within party circles, it was widely predicted his fame would quickly eclipse that of his brother Rob, the Family Feud presenter.
Brough’s early life had toughened him. When he was four, his father was struck down by polio, and he was raised by his mother, who ran a small business. A “battler” well before the term became fashionable, she taught him the value of industry and application. Brough spent eight years in the army, where he reached the rank of captain. After leaving the military in 1989, he worked as a manager in a telecommunications business before starting a small business on the Sunshine Coast. With his wife, Sue, a hairdresser whom he married when she was 18, he set up wholesaling domestic and hair products. In 1996 he entered parliament, where he was nicknamed “Captain Decoré”.
Even before running for office, he had caught the eye of John Howard, who regarded him as a “good potential talent” with a “knockabout style [that] brought him into contact with swathes of middle Australia”. In 1995, before Brough’s first shot at parliament, Howard put him in touch with Everald Compton, a millionaire businessman. After the two men met, Compton thought the young candidate was of prime-ministerial calibre, and still does. “He’s got a strong personality, he’s articulate, he’s got political nous,” says Compton. “He knows when to keep his mouth open and when to keep it shut. He’s a born leader, has a very astute political brain and is a very good policymaker. He’s a very efficient organiser.”
Brough also has a little-known capacity for acts of personal kindness, says Compton. On the Sunshine Coast, he has helped a number of businessmen going through hard times, and he continued to do voluntary work in indigenous communities after losing his seat at the 2007 election. Alan Colyer, his one-time Anglican pastor, also sees Brough as a caring conservative. “He’s shown great compassion towards me and my family, and members of the congregation,” Colyer says. “If he’s ambitious, it’s for the good of the nation rather than personally. He’s there to make a difference to his constituents.” Nothing better illustrates his benevolence, according to friends, than his efforts to repair the breach between black and white Australia.
The Northern Territory intervention, the declaration of what amounted to martial law in Aboriginal communities awash with grog and plagued by child abuse, seemed the perfect vehicle for the captain-turned-politician. As indigenous affairs minister, he could bark out orders and expect them to be obeyed. Certainly, Howard thought Brough’s military background equipped him with the “right style” for the job. “His army training had given him a mix of authority and mateship,” he wrote admiringly in his memoir.
In making the case for the intervention, Brough projected the air of a commander addressing his troops on the eve of battle. The Australian public, he declared to parliament, were “willing to put their shoulder to the wheel when they feel that finally they can help to improve the lot of their fellow Australian citizens – the first Australians.” He concluded: “This is a great national endeavour and it is the right thing to do.”
His bull-at-the-gate, no-nonsense style quickly came to the fore during a 2006 visit to Wadeye, a remote Aboriginal community south-west of Darwin, when he found himself in the midst of a near riot. In the late afternoon, as dusk faded into night, “a melee rolled like a wrecking ball through Wadeye”, according to the then Bulletin journalist Adam Shand, who was on hand to record the scene. Rival gangs, the Evil Warriors and Judas Priests, were fighting a running battle. Brough’s advisers urged him to get the hell out. “They were going apeshit,” recalled Shand.
Brough decided not only to stay, but to confront the rioters. “I’m the man from Canberra,” he famously shouted. “I control the bloody money that comes in here for Centrelink … If you boys go over the hill tonight to fight those guys, I will cut your money off. Do you fucking well understand what I’m saying?” Word quickly spread through other indigenous communities that the new man from Canberra was different.
The Wadeye confrontation came in his “gung-ho, overly aggressive” phase, according to those who know the community well, which did not achieve much. It was only when he slowed down and “got his engagement right” that he made progress. The true watershed moment in Wadeye came on a return visit in an unpublicised meeting with about 25 elders. When Brough attempted to start the meeting, he was told to sit by community hard man Leon Melpi. When he tried
to take charge later on, he was instructed to shut up and listen, again by Melpi. Rather than shouting, Brough did listen, and on the plane home that night told his staff to abandon plans to cut Wadeye’s funding.
“In terms of engaging with the community, his confrontation with the Evil Warriors was irrelevant,” says Sean Bowden, the community’s legal adviser, “because these young men were not significant players. The key meeting was when he was compelled to listen by a well-organised council of senior men, who had a plan for their future.” Bowden believes Brough left a legacy at Wadeye: “He didn’t just talk, he did something.”
At a meeting in Arnhem Land in August 2007 attended by Aboriginal leaders Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Brough also impressed when he talked about the pervasiveness of drugs and grog, and outlined a fresh approach to welfare. “I did open up my heart to his kind of leadership,” Yunupingu reflected to a journalist afterwards. “That’s what’s needed in politics; direct, no beating about the bush. He hit the nail on the head; he meant business in fixing up indigenous affairs.”
What gave Brough’s involvement an unexpected personal dimension was his claim to Aboriginal ancestry. His maternal grandmother, Violet, believes that her missing father was a blackfella, a piece of family lore that has been handed down the generations. Indeed, Brough’s sister, Carol, identifies as Aboriginal. Brough himself has never sought to advertise the fact, but nor has he sought to camouflage it. “Don’t know for sure, no real way of ascertaining it,” he once noted, with typical brusqueness. “But I’m proud of who my family are and what they are – we are Australian.”
Overall, he received positive press for his leadership during the intervention. “Brough was rough but he made people sit up and listen,” noted Peter Sutton, the respected anthropologist. “He was flawed and reckless but he could also be heroic.” According to veteran NT reporter Paul Toohey, he was “coldly realistic” but well intentioned. “Brough really did care,” he wrote, “in his drill sergeant way.”
Toohey reckons that Brough’s focus on the intervention, away from his home constituency, cost him his parliamentary seat at the 2007 election. Compton agrees. “There’s a certain part of the Australian electorate that will never accept indigenous people as their equals,” he says.
Other factors were also at play. In protest at WorkChoices, the unions targeted Longman, Brough’s electorate, in the hope of unseating a high-flyer in the Howard ministry. Brough’s hubris may also have contributed to his undoing. In the final stages of the campaign, Phil Coorey of the Australian Financial Review has since revealed, Brough and Christopher Pyne received warnings from Liberal Party headquarters that their seats were vulnerable. Internal polling also highlighted sections of the electorate they should target in the final hours. Unlike Pyne, Brough reportedly ignored the advice. Before the campaign, it was said that Brough declined an offer from Howard to roll Peter Slipper, in the safe neighbouring seat of Fisher, so that Brough could be parachuted to safety.
After losing his seat he became president of the Queensland Liberal Party, resigning after less than five months in pique over its merger with the Nationals to form the LNP. “I’ve just had a gutful, quite frankly,” he told Fairfax Radio. Lawrence Springborg, who became LNP leader, is known to despise him, a view shared by many former Nationals.
Brough moved to Melbourne for a while, then returned to Queensland to mend fences with the LNP and relaunch his electoral career in Fisher. He had already started laying the foundations for his political comeback in a June 2010 interview with the Sunshine Coast Daily, in which he declared it was time for Slipper to stand aside, as well as the Liberal member for neighbouring Fairfax, Alex Somlyay, who at that time was recovering from throat cancer. Tony Abbott, who has been a loyal friend to Brough, is alleged to have tried to lever him into Fairfax by offering Somlyay the possibility of an overseas posting. Following complaints from Labor, the matter was referred to the Australian Federal Police, although no further action has been taken.
With Somlyay determined to serve another term, Brough focused his attention on Fisher. Slipper’s preselection was supposedly guaranteed by the terms of the LNP merger agreement, but local party members were tiring of their eccentric MP, who was accused of abusing travel entitlements and also of not being able to stay off the grog. “If he turns up at a branch function or parliament with alcohol on his breath he’s gone,” a local party member told the Sunshine Coast Daily. After the August 2010 election, Slipper’s decision to take up Labor’s invitation to serve as deputy speaker sealed his fate. “He’s the bloke that took his vote to the Labor Party,” John Howard later scoffed on a visit to Queensland, where he waded into the local preselection row. “I don’t have a vote, but I can say this: Mal Brough was an outstanding minister in my government.”
In December 2010, Brough finally announced his candidacy, a move that brought an instant rebuke from his rival. “I have no respect for Mal Brough,” said Slipper. “He was overrated when he was a minister, it was all about him, he was perpetually on an ego trip, and the only reason he’s joining the LNP, a party he despises, is because he wants to try to get back into federal politics.” Less than a year later, Slipper resigned from the LNP and accepted Julia Gillard’s invitation to become speaker. Part of his reason was the realisation that he would not survive a challenge from Brough.
In the preselection battle that unfolded, the party’s high command favoured James McGrath, a former adviser to Boris Johnson, London’s Tory mayor, and who had masterminded Campbell Newman’s state election victory. But Brough had taken up residence in the seat and by that stage built up considerable local support. A more serious threat to his preselection was the allegation that he had interfered in a local mayoral election by offering financial inducements to one of the candidates to step down. Brough protested his innocence and threatened to sue. In July last year he was cleared of any wrongdoing by Queensland’s anti-corruption watchdog, and a week later beat seven other contenders to win preselection in Fisher. But even as he celebrated, he and the party knew that another scandal was looming.
Peter Slipper hired James Ashby in December 2011, not long after becoming speaker, and quickly came to regard him as a trustworthy aide. With Ashby, who is gay, Slipper shared the darker recesses of his sexual imagination, including his puerile observations on female genitalia. His notorious “shell-less mussel” text would lead to his resignation as speaker, and, peculiarly, to Gillard’s misogyny speech. Slipper also used an anatomical term to describe his and Ashby’s sworn enemy: “Mal Brough is a cunt.” Then he ruminated on the use of the term: “Funny how we say a person is a C when many guys like Cs.” “Not I,” replied Ashby. Slipper also praised his young adviser for masterminding a social media campaign against Brough.
The flow of flirtatious and highly sexualised texts, revealed in 200 pages of court documents after Ashby brought a sexual harassment suit, give no indication that Slipper ever suspected Ashby was about to betray him. But that is precisely what happened on 23 March 2012, when the aide held the first of three meetings with Brough.
Brough contends that he met Ashby out of a “moral obligation” to help someone in trouble. The judge took a wholly different view, and ruled that it was the start of a political conspiracy aimed at bringing down Slipper. After the meetings, Ashby started passing on information supposedly proving what Brough had long been telling reporters: that Slipper was rorting his expenses.
Six days after the pair first met, Brough received an email from Steve Lewis, a News Ltd journalist, regarding Slipper’s travel expenses. “I would be fascinated to see what his diary said for these dates,” wrote Lewis. “They involve some large sums, and the destinations were … er … unusual!!!” At 9.31 that evening, Ashby sent Brough three scanned files from Slipper’s diary via text message. Having trouble reading them on his phone, Brough asked for the attachments to be emailed. Again, Ashby obliged. Still, Brough wanted more: “Will need to get daily print outs tomorrow with greater detail.” The following day, Brough met Ashby for a second time, and also Karen Doane, another Slipper aide who had turned against her boss. The three worked “in combination,” according to the surprisingly ferocious federal court judgement of Justice Steven Rares, “for the predominant purpose of causing political damage to Mr Slipper”. They had entered into what amounted to a political conspiracy “in order to advance the interests of the LNP and Mr Brough”. Justice Rares dismissed Ashby’s case.
What made the whole affair so perplexing was that Slipper by that stage had dug himself a hole so deep that he needed little help from Brough. And what made the ruling all the more embarrassing for Brough was the strength of his initial denials that he had colluded with Ashby. Journalists who pursued the story, he insisted, were heading up a “dry gully”. Even after the judge’s ruling, Brough continued to protest that he had done nothing wrong, despite the disclosure of his contact with Ashby and Doane. “I reiterate that I have at all times acted appropriately,” he protested in a brief written statement. “I am sure the people of Fisher are looking forward to their opportunity to have their say on Mr Slipper’s behaviour.”
The impact of the scandal on the Sunshine Coast has been strikingly small. There are those, like Everald Compton, who continue to believe Brough is blameless. “He did nothing wrong, legally or morally,” says the colourful millionaire. “There was a lot of politics involved.” Besides, scandal is hardly unknown in the electorate of Fisher. “Slipper is of such bad odour,” says the Courier-Mail’s Denis Atkins, “that there is a feeling that the ends justified the means.” Even the withering verdict of the federal judge does not appear to have done much damage. “No copper turned up on his door the next morning,” says Atkins. “An old Queensland test.”
Given the number of scandals he has survived, it is tempting to view Mal Brough as somehow Teflon-coated. But a martial metaphor is perhaps more apt: that of the warrior, bloodied and caked in muck, but ready to fight again. His ongoing campaign looks set to take him to the top of the Abbott ministry, and from there he may have an even more exalted endgame in mind.