PAUL AUSTINApril 13, 2010
VICTORIAN Parliament officials are preparing for the possibility they will be required to execute warrants for the arrest of key state government staff over the Hotel Windsor affair.
The preparations, including consideration as to whether police may need to be called in, follows Attorney-General Rob Hulls’s rejection of advice from the clerk of the Legislative Council, Wayne Tunnecliffe, that Mr Hulls and several ministerial advisers have committed a serious contempt of Parliament.
Victorian officials are contacting counterparts in Western Australia for advice about how they implemented a decision of State Parliament there in the mid-1990s to jail a citizen for a week for contempt.
The election-year battle between the Brumby government and State Parliament escalated dramatically yesterday when Mr Hulls said Mr Tunnecliffe was wrong to rule that ministerial staff should appear before an upper house committee investigating a media plan within Planning Minister Justin Madden’s office to run a sham public consultation over a $260 million redevelopment of the Windsor.
The committee is now expected to issue a fresh subpoena to the plan’s author, Mr Madden’s former press secretary, Peta Duke, and to send summonses to the chiefs of Premier John Brumby’s media unit, George Svigos and Fiona Macrae.
Political sources said if the media advisers continued to refuse to appear, the committee was expected to refer the matter to the full upper house – dominated by non-Labor parties.
Parliamentary officials said the Legislative Council could then order the advisers to appear before the bar of the house for cross-examination. If they failed to appear, the upper house could issue penalties ranging up to prison sentences.
”We’re obviously talking about it, but we don’t have much to guide us about what may well be the executing of a warrant for someone’s arrest,” one senior parliamentary official told The Age.
”We’re really talking about invoking the ancient privileges of Parliament.”
Parliamentary historians said three people – an MP and two media proprietors – had been jailed by the Victorian Parliament after being found to be in contempt in separate cases in the 1860s and 1870s.
The Age revealed yesterday that Mr Tunnecliffe had advised the upper house committee investigating the Windsor redevelopment that Mr Hulls was in contempt of Parliament for directing ministerial staff not to appear before it.
But Mr Hulls yesterday said long-standing protocols in the Victorian and federal parliaments dictated that advisers should not be called before parliamentary committees.
”Mr Tunnecliffe ought know that the relevant conventions and protocols are such that they [ministerial staff] shouldn’t be appearing,” Mr Hulls said. ”It’s not going to happen.
”I won’t allow them [the conventions] to be undermined, to be demolished, by a grubby coalition between the Liberal Party and the Greens.”
Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said Mr Hulls was thumbing his nose at Mr Tunnecliffe’s ruling.
”Rob Hulls should back off, and the ministerial staff should attend as they are required to do,” Mr Baillieu said.
Mr Hulls, as a member of the lower house, is not answerable to the upper house, but Mr Baillieu left open the possibility the opposition would seek to have Parliament’s privileges committee take action against the Attorney-General for contempt.
Greens MP Greg Barber said he still wanted Ms Duke to appear before the upper house committee so Parliament could find out whether she had acted alone in drawing up the plan for a fake public consultation over the future of the Windsor.
DLP MP Peter Kavanagh said he was disappointed by the government’s attempts to obstruct the calling of witnesses ”and by the histrionic attempts to distract from the committee’s proper task of getting to the truth about the Windsor Hotel development process”.