April 12, 2010
ATTORNEY-GENERAL Rob Hulls has committed a serious contempt of Parliament by ordering government advisers not to appear before a parliamentary inquiry into the Hotel Windsor planning scandal, according to the legal guardian of Victoria’s upper house.
Legislative Council clerk Wayne Tunnecliffe has ruled that Mr Hulls was wrong to be instructing ministerial staff not to give evidence to the opposition-dominated inquiry, which the government had condemned as a witch-hunt.
The clerk’s explosive advice will reignite the row over a media plan written by Planning Minister Justin Madden’s press secretary, Peta Duke, that outlined a strategy to run a sham public consultation over the contentious $260 million redevelopment of the Windsor.
In written advice to the committee, obtained by The Age, Mr Tunnecliffe suggests Ms Duke and Premier John Brumby’s chief media advisers, George Svigos and Fiona Macrae, are in contempt of Parliament by refusing to appear before the committee.
But Mr Tunnecliffe’s written advice goes further, saying Mr Hulls has also committed a contempt by directing staff not to give evidence.
”Interference with witnesses is also a serious matter,” the clerk wrote to upper house committees secretary Richard Willis on March 26.
Mr Tunnecliffe said parliamentary rules state that ”any conduct calculated to deter prospective witnesses from giving evidence before either house or a committee is a contempt”.
”A direction not to attend a committee hearing in response to a summons would in my view fall within the definition of contempt and accordingly may be dealt with by the house,” he wrote.
The clerk’s advice ensures an election-year battle between Parliament and the government over which institution is paramount when disputes arise between them.
It means the Windsor affair and the roles of Mr Brumby, Mr Hulls and Mr Madden in it are likely to dog the government through to November’s election.
Contempt of Parliament is regarded as a serious offence in Westminster democracies, with offenders liable to penalties ranging from public censure to fines to, in extreme cases, jail. Although the upper house cannot directly take action against Mr Hulls, a lower-house member could refer the matter to the Speaker.
The opposition last night called for Mr Hulls to resign or be sacked, saying the correspondence with the Windsor committee showed he was acting like a thug. Opposition planning spokesman Matthew Guy accused Mr Hulls of orchestrating a cover-up of the Madden scandal.
”It beggars belief that Labor’s Attorney-General is actively directing members of John Brumby and Justin Madden’s staff to break the laws of Parliament and not to comply with a legal subpoena,” he said.
Mr Hulls was unavailable last night, but government spokeswoman Roxanne Punton said he was acting in accord with a long-standing convention that ministerial advisers do not appear before parliamentary committees.
This convention applied across all state and federal governments, and was included in the former Howard government’s code of conduct for ministerial staff.
”The Attorney-General will not stand by and have this committee try and bully a young woman,” Ms Punton said.
Other correspondence on the Windsor scandal seen by The Age shows:
■ Ms Duke, who has twice been subpoenaed to give evidence, told the committee she ”regretted” she could not do so because Mr Hulls had directed her not to attend.
■ Mr Hulls has offered the committee a compromise whereby it would write to Mr Madden about what it wanted to know from Ms Duke. The minister would then get a private briefing from her and give public evidence himself about Ms Duke’s explanation for her memo.
”This should provide some satisfaction to the committee without further dragging a young woman to face a team of opposition-dominated men whose agenda is no more than a political stunt,” Mr Hulls wrote on April 1.
The upper house committee launched its inquiry after Ms Duke’s eight-page media plan, emailed to Mr Svigos and Ms Macrae in the Premier’s media unit, was accidentally leaked to the media.
Ms Duke, who was demoted after the email became public, wrote that the government would call for public comment on advice it expected to receive from an independent panel recommending in favour of the proposed Windsor redevelopment.
Her plan, updated on February 24, said the ”strategy at this stage” was to use adverse public reaction to the recommendation as a reason to reject the revamp, to show ”we have listened to community views”.
Mr Madden, who says the media plan was all Ms Duke’s work, accepted the panel’s advice and last month granted a permit for the redevelopment, which includes a 26-storey glass tower behind the 1880s hotel.
Mr Tunnecliffe, in his advice to the Windsor committee, says upper house committees have wide powers to call anyone other than a member or officer of the lower house.
”There are no other exceptions and witnesses are expected to attend when required, particularly when summonsed to do so,” he wrote.