PAUL AUSTINJune 18, 2010
THE Ombudsman has been called in to investigate the Hotel Windsor planning scandal, including any involvement by Premier John Brumby and Planning Minister Justin Madden in a bid to corrupt Victoria’s planning laws.
The opposition, Greens and Democratic Labor Party yesterday used their numbers to roll the ALP and order a Ombudsman’s inquiry into the affair.
The non-Labor parties have asked the Ombudsman to report back to Parliament by August 31, only three months before the state election.
Sources told The Age that Ombudsman George Brouwer appeared to have the power to question anyone he liked about the planning process for a controversial $260 million redevelopment of the Windsor, including the senior government advisers who have so far refused to speak about their role.
Attorney-General Rob Hulls did not dispute this last night, but lashed out at the Liberals and Greens for trying to politicise the Ombudsman.
A private meeting yesterday of the upper house committee inquiring into the affair resolved to call on rarely used powers in the Ombudsman’s Act to get Mr Brouwer involved.
Mr Brumby and Mr Hulls have ordered senior advisers in the Premier’s office not to co-operate with the committee in investigating an eight-page media plan from Mr Madden’s former press secretary that outlined a strategy to run a sham public consultation process on the redevelopment.
The former press secretary, Peta Duke, who now works in the Premier’s office, sent the plan to the government’s head of communications, George Svigos, and the Premier’s metropolitan media adviser, Fiona Macrae, in February.
At the direction of Mr Hulls, the three advisers and Mr Madden’s chief of staff, Justin Jarvis, have since defied subpoenas from the upper house committee to give evidence about their role and whether Mr Brumby and Mr Madden had any knowledge of the plan.
Sources from all sides of politics said it now appeared the advisers would be required to give evidence to the Ombudsman.
The non-Labor members of the committee have also reserved the right to continue to pursue the advisers, to the point where they could be called before the bar of the upper house and jailed for contempt of Parliament.
Under the terms of the resolution passed by the committee yesterday, the Ombudsman has been called in to investigate and report on:
■ The probity of the Windsor redevelopment planning process, ”including but not limited to the involvement of the Premier, ministers, ministerial staff and their offices”.
■ The probity and circumstances surrounding the development of Ms Duke’s media plan, ”including any involvement of the Premier, ministers, ministerial staff and their offices”.
The referral, delivered to Mr Brouwer’s office yesterday afternoon, relies on section 16 of the Ombudsman’s Act, which empowers parliamentary committees to ask him to investigate any matter other than a judicial proceeding.
It is believed to be only the second time the sweeping powers of section 16 have been called on since the act was introduced in 1973.
Ms Duke’s media plan, accidentally leaked in February, said the government would call for public comment on advice it expected to receive from an independent panel recommending in favour of the proposed Windsor revamp.
The plan, updated on February 24, said the ”strategy at this stage” was to use adverse public reaction to the recommendation as a reason to reject the redevelopment, to show ”we have listened to community views”.
In the event Mr Madden, who has repeatedly said the media plan was all Ms Duke’s work, accepted the panel’s advice and in March granted a permit for the redevelopment, which includes a 26-storey glass tower behind the 1880s hotel.
Mr Hulls last night said the committee’s decision to call in the Ombudsman ”confirms what we have been saying all along – that this upper house inquiry is no more than a pathetic political stunt”.
Greens committee member Greg Barber confirmed he had supported the referral to the Ombudsman, but said he would continue to push for Ms Duke to be called before the full upper house to be publicly cross-examined.