ROYCE MILLARApril 28, 2010
Set for redevelopment … Melbourne’s historic Hotel Windsor.
A SCHEME to pervert the planning process for the Windsor Hotel redevelopment was not the work of a rogue media adviser – as claimed by the Brumby government – but part of a high-level Labor strategy.
An investigation by The Age has confirmed that the government early this year intended to block the $270 million project, and that senior government figures were involved in a plan to use a bogus public consultation process as a pretext for doing so.
The strategy was discussed by senior planning staff, advisers and government MPs before Peta Duke, a media adviser to Planning Minister Justin Madden, referred to it in an email that was mistakenly sent to the ABC.
A senior government source told The Age that the project, which includes part demolition of the hotel and construction of a 92-metre glass tower to its rear, was supposed to have been blocked. ”There was going to be a refusal,” said the source.
The latest revelations could revive claims that Mr Madden’s decision last month to allow the project to go ahead was motivated, not by enthusiasm for the development, but by a need to politically disown the explosive Duke email.
The Age believes Mr Madden was aware of a strategy to stop the project before the email got out, and had discussed it with at least one other Labor MP.
But one insider insisted the minister did not initiate the plan to block the project. ”It’s not his fault. He’s got to take a whole lot of crap for things that weren’t any of his actions.”
Mr Madden has refused repeated requests to discuss the issue and an unusual level of sensitivity surrounds the issue at the highest levels of government.
Even Labor backbenchers who campaigned passionately against the Windsor redevelopment now refuse to comment. Government sources have told The Age that they fear political and bureaucratic careers are on the line over the affair.
Mr Madden has stressed that no final decision had been made when the email came to light. This is correct in that no formal, written refusal had been signed at the time. But The Age can confirm that planning staff were preparing documentation to refuse the scheme when Ms Duke sent her email, which was intended for members of the Premier’s media unit, including chief George Svigos.
The Windsor Hotel affair has fuelled growing concern, including among experts such as the Planning Institute of Australia, about the integrity of planning under Labor.
Premier John Brumby and Mr Madden have insisted the leaked email – and, by implication the Windsor strategy outlined in it – was Ms Duke’s creation alone. ”It’s her document,” Mr Brumby told 3AW last month. ”She’s produced a document. The document was inappropriate.”
But The Age has confirmed the plan to refuse the hotel revamp was discussed in at least one meeting attended by a group of senior government planning officers.
The idea of refusing a permit after public consultation was hatched in anticipation of an independent advisory committee backing the project, which it did in a report delivered to Mr Madden’s office on February 8.
After eight months of hand-wringing over the proposal, the government moved quickly to approve the project in March once the Duke email was made public. That decision is now the subject of an appeal by the National Trust.
After the email mishap, Ms Duke was redeployed as a researcher in the Premier’s office. She refused to comment when The Age contacted her last week.
Government sources said the move to block the Windsor project by the usually pro-development government came after a campaign against it by four Labor backbenchers: Brunswick MLA Carlo Carli, former Speaker Judy Maddigan, parliamentary secretary to the Premier on national reform Rob Hudson, and parliamentary secretary for education Steve Herbert.
Concern is also mounting in Labor circles about the vulnerability of inner-city seats in a close state poll this year. ”After all, people vote, developers don’t,” said one Labor insider.
Government and development industry sources close to the project point to the role of senior bureaucrat David Hodge, the head of the ”development facilitation”, who had uncharacteristically and actively opposed the Windsor renovation.
Opposition accusations of a cover-up have been fuelled by Attorney-General Rob Hulls’ direction barring ministerial advisers from appearing before an upper house inquiry.
Mr Svigos, fellow media adviser Fiona Macrae, and Mr Jarvis are scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday. But they are unlikely to show unless the government alters its position.
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