Queensland police are negotiating a legal minefield to assess whether to launch a full criminal investigation into a complaint by stood-aside Speaker Peter Slipper that the former staffer pursuing him for sexual harassment had sex with two underage males nine years ago.
In Queensland, sex with minors is an offence carrying a maximum of 14 years in jail, but police have received only a “third-party” complaint from Mr Slipper about his former aide James Ashby’s alleged dealings.
The Liberal National Party turncoat wrote to Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson in late June to relay the claims about Mr Ashby’s alleged sexual relationships with two 15-year-olds in Townsville in 2003, when Mr Ashby was 23 and well before he had met Mr Slipper.
Police are now trying to discover whether the two young men at the centre of the allegations want to make a complaint against Mr Ashby, who filed a politically explosive sexual harassment claim against Mr Slipper in April, forcing him to step aside from his parliamentary duties as Speaker.
ABC TV’s 7:30 program reported that one of the young men had contacted Mr Slipper and complained of feeling “used and disgusted” by his short-lived relationship with Mr Ashby. Mr Slipper reportedly urged the young man to contact police, but ended up doing so himself.
Mr Slipper did not respond to The Australian yesterday. Mr Ashby’s media spokesman also declined to comment.
Tony Abbott insisted the allegations against Mr Ashby were a “matter for police” and it was up to them to investigate and take “appropriate action”.
Queensland is the only Australian jurisdiction with different ages of consent for different sexual acts. A person must be 18 to engage in sodomy, or anal sex, but only 16 to engage in other sexual activity.
A spokesman said Queensland Police Service was “in the process of determining whether any person authorised to do so wishes to make a complaint and if that is that case whether there is the evidence to support any prosecution”. “We will advise in due course the outcome of that investigation.”
The spokesman told The Australian police could pursue a matter without a formal complaint from a victim, but said it was “a grey area”.
Anti-child abuse advocate Hetty Johnston said third-party referrals of sexual crimes were of “minimal use” without a complaint from the alleged victim.
The Bravehearts founder said Mr Slipper was using a serious allegation as a “political football”.
“It’s a political red herring and it damages the credibility for survivors everywhere that make genuine complaints,” she told The Australian.
Even if a complaint is received, lawyers say prosecutors have wide discretion about whether to take the matter to court.
Top Queensland criminal lawyer Bill Potts said prosecutors would weigh up the chances of a conviction and whether such a prosecution would be in the public interest.
“The attitude of the victim, whether there’s a complaint, witnesses, the degree to which there’s a differential in age and power (between the offender and the victim), and the reasons behind promulgating the complaint would be all factors,” he said.
He said prosecutors took a hard line when the alleged offender was in a position of power and influence over their victim, for example in a relationship between a teacher and student.
Wayne Swan said allegations that Mr Ashby had sex with minors were extremely serious.
“They are going to be investigated by the authorities,” the Treasurer said, adding that the criminal allegations should be dealt with separately from Mr Ashby’s sexual harassment suit against Mr Slipper.
Trade Minister Craig Emerson said Mr Ashby should be entitled to the presumption of innocence and the probe should occur without interference.