April 14, 2010
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PREMIER John Brumby has signalled that the government will take legal action in the Supreme Court if Parliament’s upper house tries to arrest and punish senior members of his staff for refusing to give evidence on the Hotel Windsor affair.
Mr Brumby warned of an election-year constitutional battle in the courts as the upper house committee investigating the Windsor redevelopment scandal resolved to issue subpoenas to key advisers to the Premier and Planning Minister Justin Madden.
The committee, dominated by non-government members, is believed to have ordered that the head of the premier’s media unit, George Svigos, Mr Brumby’s metropolitan media adviser, Fiona Macrae, and Mr Madden’s chief of staff, Justin Jarvis, give evidence at a public hearing on April 29.
But in fiery scenes in Parliament, with the Opposition accusing Mr Brumby of a cover-up, the Premier said: ”Staff will not be appearing before the committee.”
Outside the house, he acknowledged the dispute could escalate, with the upper house having the power to arrest and jail people found to be in contempt of Parliament by refusing to comply with summonses.
Mr Brumby said it would be an unprecedented abuse of Parliament’s ”extraordinary” powers for the non-Labor parties to use their numbers in the upper house to arrest advisers.
”If the committee intends to abuse its powers and does try to arrest somebody, then this will probably end up in the courts,” he said. ”I think it would be an unfortunate thing if the courts were asked to adjudicate on the Parliament.”
The committee wants to question the advisers about their knowledge of an eight-page media plan, written by Mr Madden’s former press secretary, Peta Duke, that outlined a strategy to run a sham public consultation over the controversial Windsor redevelopment.
The Age revealed this week that the clerk of the upper house, Wayne Tunnecliffe, has ruled that advisers who refused to appear before the committee would be in contempt of Parliament. Mr Tunnecliffe went further, saying Attorney-General Rob Hulls was guilty of a serious contempt by ordering the advisers not to appear.
Mr Brumby yesterday backed Mr Hulls’ position over the clerk, who is the independent legal guardian of the upper house. He said it had been accepted convention in the Victorian Parliament for more than 100 years, under all governments, that ministers but not their staff were responsible to Parliament.
”Justin Madden is happy to appear before the committee and answer any questions that are asked of him,” Mr Brumby said. Mr Madden has said he had no knowledge of or influence over the media plan.
Mr Madden has offered to privately question Ms Duke – who now works as a researcher in the Premier’s office – about the media plan and then give public testimony to the upper house committee.
Ms Duke, who was demoted when her February media plan was accidentally made public, wrote that the ”strategy at this stage” was to elicit adverse public reaction to the proposed revamp of the Windsor and then reject it, to show ”we have listened to community views”. Mr Madden last month approved the redevelopment, including a new 26-storey glass tower behind the 1880s hotel.