Hulls should back down on advisers

April 13, 2010


    WHEN Planning Minister Justin Madden announced his approval of the Windsor Hotel redevelopment, The Age’s response was this was a good outcome to a bad process. The reason for thinking it to be a good outcome – that, as Heritage Victoria has argued, building the proposed 26-storey tower in place of the existing rear wing of the building is the best way of preserving the Windsor as a functioning hotel – still holds. Regrettably, however, the reasons for thinking the process a bad one get ever stronger.

    Public debate about the Windsor plan has been clouded by the separate issue of the memo written by Mr Madden’s former media adviser, Peta Duke, and mistakenly sent to the ABC. The memo set out a sham consultation process that would allow the minister to appear to be deferring to public opinion by rejecting the redevelopment; publication of the document, however, led to Mr Madden disavowing it, with the implication that Ms Duke had dreamed up this cynically manipulative exercise all by herself. The question remains, however, why she would have bothered to write the memo if its take on the Windsor plan was so at variance with the prevailing views in Mr Madden’s office. That question, in turn, has spawned a further one: did the need to defuse the public anger generated by the memo result in the minister making a decision that was the opposite of the one he wished to make?

    The easiest way to resolve these questions would be to allow Ms Duke to appear before the Legislative Council committee inquiring into the Windsor decision, but Attorney-General Rob Hulls has refused to allow her and other ministerial staff to give evidence. His refusal was justified by a supposed convention that ministerial staff, unlike departmental officers, are extensions of the minister and so cannot appear separately. This dubious convention was convenient for the Howard government during the Senate’s children overboard inquiry, and Mr Hulls evidently hoped it would work to the Brumby government’s advantage, too. But his view is not shared by the Clerk of the Legislative Council, Wayne Tunnecliffe, who has ruled that the advisers would be in contempt of Parliament if they decline to appear, and that Mr Hulls’ refusal is in contempt, too.

    If the Attorney-General was trying to avoid election-year embarrassments by frustrating the work of the committee, he has only achieved the opposite. Whatever ”convention” it may be invoking, the government is in fact refusing to accept that it is accountable to Parliament. Mr Hulls should heed the clerk, and let the ministerial advisers speak for themselves.




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