PAUL AUSTINJuly 22, 2010
The Windsor Hotel.
THE Hotel Windsor redevelopment scandal is set to blow-up again before November’s state election, with the upper house moving to punish Attorney-General Rob Hulls for contempt of Parliament.
A secret report by the upper house committee investigating the affair recommends forcing senior government advisers to give sworn evidence about whether Premier John Brumby and Planning Minister Justin Madden were involved in a bid to corrupt Victoria’s planning laws.
The draft report, obtained by The Age, shows the committee has determined that Mr Hulls committed a serious contempt by ordering ministerial advisers not to give evidence to the inquiry.
It says the committee’s attempts to discover the truth have been ”significantly hindered as a result of the Attorney-General’s interference”.
It suggests the Legislative Council seeks to have Mr Hulls called before the bar of the upper house to be interrogated about his direction to senior staff of the Premier and Mr Madden that they defy subpoenas to give evidence.
Stamped ”Confidential” on every page, the draft report also suggests the upper house summon the advisers before the bar and force them to answer questions about their bosses’ role in the affair.
The revelation of the upper house committee’s aggressive stance comes as the Ombudsman continues a behind-closed-doors inquiry into the planning process for a controversial $260 million revamp of the heritage hotel in Spring Street.
The draft report is expected to be debated in a confidential committee meeting tomorrow and could be tabled next week.
Labor members of the committee are expected to produce a dissenting minority report rejecting the stance of the Liberals, Nationals, Greens and DLP.
Mr Hulls, with Mr Brumby’s backing, has directed advisers in the Premier’s office not to co-operate with the committee’s investigation of a 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, emailed the plan to the government’s head of communications, George Svigos, and Mr Brumby’s metropolitan media adviser, Fiona Macrae, in February.
At the written instruction of Mr Hulls, the three advisers and Mr Madden’s chief of staff, Justin Jarvis, have since refused to comply with subpoenas to explain their role in the affair and whether Mr Brumby and Mr Madden had any knowledge of the plan.
The committee’s draft report, dated June, is scathing about Mr Hulls’s and Mr Madden’s roles in the affair.
Mr Hulls has told the committee he directed the staff not to give evidence because there was a ”long-standing convention” that ministerial advisers not appear before parliamentary inquiries.
But the committee’s draft report says this argument is contradicted by separate legal advice by constitutional expert Brett Walker, SC, and upper house clerk Wayne Tunnecliffe.
Mr Walker told a parliamentary committee in 2007 there was ”no reason” ministerial advisers should not give evidence to upper house committees, provided they were not required to answer questions about policy ”in such a way as to endanger the necessary confidence between ministers and public servants”.
Mr Tunnecliffe also advised in 2007 that ”ministerial staff, in the broadest sense of the term, have no immunity against being summoned to attend to give evidence as a matter of law”.
The draft report notes that former senior public servant Elizabeth Proust, in her report to Mr Brumby in May calling for an anti-corruption commission, said ministerial advisers were publicly funded and ”should be subject to external scrutiny to ensure they act with integrity”.
The committee says the government’s ”interference and obstruction” to prevent ministerial advisers giving evidence is inconsistent with Mr Brumby’s endorsement of the Proust report.
Mr Hulls also argued the subpoenas served on the advisers were ”procedurally defective”. But the draft report says that, in view of advice from Mr Tunnecliffe, the committee believes ”it has adhered to the appropriate parliamentary customs and practices in serving various summonses to witnesses”.
The report condemns Mr Madden for gatecrashing a public hearing of the committee in March. ”The minister displayed contempt to the committee proceedings and Parliament in general by occupying a witness chair without invitation and attempting to disrupt proceedings,” it says.
The upper house inquiry was launched after Ms Duke’s eight-page media plan was accidentally emailed to a reporter.
Ms Duke wrote that the government would call for public comment on advice it expected to get from an independent panel recommending the go-ahead for the proposed Windsor expansion.
Her plan, updated on February 24, said the ”strategy at this stage” was to use negative public reaction to the panel’s recommendation as a reason to reject the proposed redevelopment, to show ”we have listened to community views”.
Mr Madden accepted the panel’s advice and in March granted a planning permit for the Hotel Windsor revamp.