Brumby Angry In Response to Dirt Unit Claims

Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t know

October 7, 2010

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Liberals slam Brumby over ‘dirt unit’

State Liberals accuse the Brumby government of running a taxpayer-funded ‘dirt unit’ aimed at attacking political opponents

John Brumby and his ministers have a nasty habit of courting ignorance when scandals erupt on their watch.


In the last week of the 1999 Victorian election campaign, premier Jeff Kennett sat in Jon Faine’s ABC radio studio and refused to answer some uncomfortable questions about alleged government impropriety. ”Keep going,” Kennett told Faine, ”I’ll just sit here and drink my tea.” Kennett lost the election, and the interview has gone down in Australian political folklore as a tipping point.

Yesterday, less than eight weeks from the state election, Premier John Brumby sat in Faine’s studio and became irritated by some uncomfortable questions about alleged government impropriety. ”So you keep asking questions,” Brumby told Faine, before condemning some of them as ”outrageous”. If Brumby loses next month’s election, this interview, too, will come to be seen as a tipping point.

It would be unfair to suggest Brumby comes anywhere close to Kennett on the arrogance scale. He doesn’t. But his performance yesterday on the so-called dirt unit affair was not one of his finest moments. Among other things, it highlighted a curious lack of curiosity that sometimes condemns this Premier and too many of his ministers.

Brumby was asked whether government staff were taking photos of people entering Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu’s Spring Street office. ”Well, certainly not that I’m aware,” he said.

Faine: ”Have you inquired?”

Brumby: ”Well, to whom?”

Faine: ”To your staff.”

Brumby: ”No, I haven’t.”

That was reminiscent of Planning Minister Justin Madden’s attitude to the Hotel Windsor scandal. And Madden’s approach on the Brimbank council affair. And Health Minister Daniel Andrews’s stance on hospital waiting lists rorts.

In each of those cases, ministers looked away in the hope they were not tarnished by the activities of people working for them. The ministers’ reluctance or refusal to find out about what was happening around them failed to serve the public interest.

Last week, Madden gave evidence to the upper house committee investigating the now-infamous ”Justin Madden media plan” on the Windsor redevelopment.

That confidential memo by Madden’s then media adviser, Peta Duke, was accidentally sent to the ABC and so became public.

Madden has always maintained that the document, which he acknowledges outlined an entirely inappropriate course of action on the $260 million redevelopment of the Windsor, was the work of Duke, and Duke alone. But at last Thursday’s committee hearing, Madden said he had not spoken to Duke about the plan or what prompted her to write it. To understand how extraordinary that lack of curiosity is requires a bit of background.

Duke’s eight-page document, updated on February 24, said the government would call for public comment on advice it expected to receive from an independent panel recommending in favour of the Windsor revamp. It said the ”strategy at this stage” was to use adverse public reaction to the recommendation as a reason to reject the revamp, to show ”we have listened to community views”.

The non-Labor parties in the upper house established a committee to investigate. But their efforts were hampered by Attorney-General Rob Hulls’s decision to bar Duke and the Brumby media advisers who received her emailed plan from appearing before the committee. Hulls’s argument, backed by Brumby, was that ministers, not staff, are accountable to Parliament, so Madden was the one to answer the committee’s questions.

It was a catch-22. The government was arguing that Madden knew nothing about the circumstances that led to the media plan being written. But Duke, the person who would surely be able to lead the committee to the truth, was ruled off limits.

Madden took to taunting the committee to call him. Last month, he suggested the opposition parties were ”too gutless” to hear from him. But when the moment finally arrived, more than seven months after the Duke document was leaked, Madden told the committee he had not had a single discussion about it with his former press secretary.

”I’ve seen her very briefly to wish her well, in the sense that I’ve passed her in a hallway of a building and said, ‘Good luck; hope you’re all right’ – wishes like that,” Madden said. Greens MP Greg Barber responded: ”So you did not ask her where she formed the idea that she put into her media plan?”

Madden: ”No.”

Barber: ”You did not interrogate her – ‘Why are you writing that? Where did you hear that? How did you form that view?’ ”

Madden: ”No, I did not.”

So, there is evidence in the public arena about an apparent attempt inside the government to pervert Victoria’s planning laws, but Victoria’s Planning Minister has not tried to find out about it. He should have.

Madden has form on this sort of ignorance about activities in his office.

Last year, some of the most damning findings of an Ombudsman’s report on the Labor-dominated Brimbank council related to Madden’s electorate officer, Hakki Suleyman. Madden moved to dismiss Suleyman. The minister said he had had no idea about what his electorate officer had been up to. Suleyman had worked for Madden for a decade.

Just before the Brimbank affair broke, Health Minister Andrews was embarrassed when a belated audit of the Royal Women’s Hospital found it had been falsifying its waiting lists. The Age had reported, prominently and repeatedly, on credible accusations of such manipulation. Andrews had shown a culpable lack of interest in discovering the truth. When the audit was done, the minister said he was furious about what had been uncovered. It turned out the systematic falsifying of the lists had been going on for virtually all of Labor’s decade in power.

It looks like a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil strategy. Whatever it is, it betrays a failure of ministerial responsibility and accountability.

Paul Austin is Age state political editor.

 

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