Much to be cynical about in silencing of Windsor witness

TOM ORMONDE

April 12, 2010

    SINCE the Windsor Hotel scandal blew up in the face of Planning Minister Justin Madden just over six weeks ago, he and others in the Brumby government have protested that they have nothing to hide. Why, then, do they appear so desperate to silence the one person who could put an end to the speculation?

    This critical question now threatens to hound the government most of the way to the November election, after Attorney-General Rob Hulls expressed his determination to block Peta Duke – the former Madden media adviser at the centre of the affair – from appearing before a parliamentary inquiry and telling us what happened.

    At the core of the scandal is a mischievous scheme to corrupt the planning process surrounding the Windsor redevelopment. An internal memo written by Duke proposed the use of a sham public consultation process as a pretext for Madden to block the developer’s proposal, which involves demolition of the rear wing of the hotel and its replacement with a 26-storey glass tower.

    When Duke’s memo was accidentally leaked to the ABC, the lid was blown on an eye-popping breach of ethics and public trust – either by Duke alone or, potentially more seriously, by Madden and others in his office as well.

    Madden insists he knew nothing of the memo or its contents, and that Duke was in effect freelancing. If that’s true, why doesn’t he remove any lingering doubt by serving her up to the parliamentary committee to confirm his story?

    Several explanations for his reluctance can be contemplated, varying in character from the politically expedient to the outright sinister.

    The official excuse for gagging Duke is that by Westminster convention, ministerial staff do not go before parliamentary inquiries. The rationale for excluding them from the accountability framework that applies to ministers and public servants has been that staff are an extension of ministers. Accordingly, ministers are solely accountable and responsible for the actions of their staff.

    But, as Anne Tiernan and Patrick Weller of Griffith University wrote in a submission to a federal inquiry several years ago, this ”constitutional myth” has been supplanted by contemporary realities of the roles of ministerial staff, who exercise far more executive power and control than ever before.

    Redundant though the convention may be, it is not hard to see why politicians would cling to a concept that keeps staff well away from the clutches of rabid parliamentary inquiries. As long as staff remain immune from accountability, they make convenient scapegoats for ministers when things go wrong.

    Hulls, no doubt, is partly motivated by the urge to avoid creating any precedent to the contrary. The Howard government did the same in 2002 during the ”Children Overboard” affair, when it blocked three key staffers from going before a Senate inquiry.

    If this were a noble cause – a principled defence of an important democratic convention – Hulls’s stance might be defensible. But it’s nothing of the sort. At best, his refusal to allow Duke to testify is a cynical and self-serving attempt to perpetuate the accountability-free status of ministerial staff.

    At worst, it could be something else altogether. The more desperate the government appears in its efforts to gag Peta Duke, the more we are inclined to wonder whether others in Madden’s office, and possibly the minister himself, were in on the sleazy plan.

    There is the further issue of the hotel project itself, and whether the scandal influenced Madden’s decision last month to approve it. Did he sign off on the project because he embraced the idea of pulling down an entire wing of the Windsor and putting up a tower? Or did he do it because the politics of the situation demanded that he disown the sordid Duke memo?

    By logical extension, could it be that the government always intended to save the Windsor, but in the end decided it had to be sacrificed to cover up its own political chicanery?

    And here’s a final question:

    If we suspend disbelief for a moment and imagine Duke was acting alone, where did she learn that nasty stuff about faking public consultation and corrupting the planning process? Surely not in Madden’s office?

    Of course, these are mere suspicions and questions. But all of them are encouraged by the government’s strident refusal to allow Duke to testify and clear the air on the matter.

    There is an ultimate cynical view of this saga, proffered by hardened political types: that Peta Duke’s only crime was to get caught. This view would have it that official standards of propriety and process are routinely dispensable in politics, and that dirty tricks are the norm when you’re trying to run a state or a nation.

    Richard Farmer, a seasoned political operative who worked for three Labor leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, appears to be firmly in this camp. After the Windsor affair broke, Farmer despaired on the Crikey website about the proclivity of some operatives such as Duke to write down details of their clever schemes. ”Absolutely no good can ever come of leaving a record of dirty tricks,” he wrote. ”The authors should be dismissed immediately, and not for their plans but for ever putting them on the record.”

    Maybe that’s why we’ll never hear Peta Duke’s side of the story.

    Tom Ormonde is a staff writer.

     

     

     

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