Welcome to hotel deception
February 11, 2011
An artist’s impression of the development.
PETA Duke, press secretary to then planning minister Justin Madden, took the fall when a strategy to reject the Windsor Hotel redevelopment accidentally went public. But credit where it’s due, the ideas that sank her were not hers alone.
Also in the frame stands Justin Jarvis, the then minister’s chief of staff by title and, according to a Victorian Ombudsman’s report released yesterday, a motormouth by nature.
”Justin’s the sort of guy who talks a lot, generates a lot of ideas (he’s) got so many things going through his head so you sort of got to take those things as they come, just let him talk,” Planning Department official David Hodge said.
On February 17 last year Jarvis was running true to form. Hodge, the department’s executive director for planning services, and the department’s deputy secretary, Prue Digby, were among a small group meeting Madden.
At that meeting came the first hint that some within government were ready to consider misusing the planning process by staging a phoney public consultation to justify blocking the Windsor redevelopment.
For months Madden and the department had anticipated the findings of an advisory committee report into a redevelopment plan for the historic Windsor Hotel, a distinctive Melbourne landmark since 1883, and the last surviving 19th-century grand hotel in the country.
Melbourne has been cavalier with its rich Victorian architectural inheritance. It punched holes through Collins Street to facilitate a high-tone address for Nauru House. It dispatched the ornate treasure of the Fish Market to build an overpass. The plan for the Windsor, a remnant jewel, was always going to be problematic for a government in an election year.
”[Jarvis] basically identified the idea of what’s been reported in the papers … that we would release the [advisory] report for consultation and then make a decision based on what came back,” Hodge told the Ombudsman.
Asked whether Jarvis was discussing using public opposition to stop the redevelopment, Hodge added: ”That was put to me by him, or put to the group by him.”
Digby has a similar memory. ”I can’t get these words right because I just can’t remember the exact words, but [it was] to the effect of well, if we release the report and everybody got upset, maybe we could refuse it,” Digby said.
Digby quarantined Minister Madden from the remark. ”I didn’t really take a lot of notice to the comment and it wasn’t discussed in the sense was (sic) the Minister was not involved in a discussion. It was a comment by one person.”
Peta Duke was not at that meeting. Yet one week later she echoed Jarvis’s idea. In an email written February 24, Duke suggested using negative public reaction to the Windsor plan as a pretext for rejecting it.
Outlining a plan to manage the media, Duke said that: ”The [Windsor Hotel] strategy at this stage is to release [the report] for public comment as this affects the entire community and then use those responses as reason to halt it, as we have listened to community views.”
Duke told the Ombudsman the media plan was entirely her work and not informed by the events of the February 17 meeting.
Those were not the only airings of the media strategy, however. The day before she wrote the email Duke discussed the issue with Madden at Parliament House. ”I had a brief – no more than five-minute – conversation with minister Madden in his office,” she recalled.
”It was about mid-morning … the discussion concerning the Windsor Hotel application lasted only about one minute, or possibly less. The minister had not seen the report at the time or any departmental briefing in relation to it. He thought the report would recommend approving the redevelopment application. We thought public reaction could be negative.”
She said she suggested to Madden that if the plan was refused, the media response would be to say the government had responded to the community in reaching its decision. Essentially it is the same message that she put in her email the following day.
Madden told the Ombudsman he did not hear Jarvis speak of using public opposition to forestall the redevelopment at the February 17 meeting. Hodge and Digby heard it, but the minister said he was thinking about the attitude of the Melbourne City Council to the proposal.
And when Duke raised the matter with him in that parliamentary encounter on February 23, he thought she was joking. ”Ms Duke responded with a throwaway line, to the effect of, and I thought she was trying to be humorous, the gist of it was ‘it can be knocked off’, or ‘you can knock it off’ or something like that. I didn’t laugh, although I took it as a cheeky line,” said Madden.
Considering Duke’s claim that she alone was responsible for the wording of the media strategy, the Ombudsman said, ”There is an element of doubt regarding Ms Duke’s evidence.”
What is clear, however, is what happened next.
Duke’s audience for her email comprised George Svigos, then premier John Brumby’s head of communications, and media advisers Fiona Macrae and Jessica Harris. Sending the email ended her working day (it was time-dated 6.07pm). It also ended her time as the minister’s adviser. Duke also tried to send the email to her manager in the Premier’s media unit, Sarah Dolan. Inadvertently, she sent it to ABC journalist Sarah Farnsworth and a controversy was born.
Planning, the issue that dogged the Kennett Liberal government and that Labor had tried to turn to its advantage, was about to turn comprehensively sour. The government would continue to be haunted by the charge that it was prepared to undertake a sham public consultation for the purpose of a pre-ordained outcome.
Duke only learnt of her error on February 25 when contacted by a journalist.
Madden said he had not known of the media plan. ”I was surprised at its existence when it was brought to my attention on the Thursday afternoon [February 25]. It’s not a document that I would ever see nor had I seen … I was quite flabbergasted at it.”
There are other surprises in the saga. Madden’s media plans anticipated the delivery of the Windsor Hotel advisory committee report for several weeks in advance of the contentious Duke strategy. His media outlines recorded repeatedly that the recommendation was due in the first week of February. The report was delivered punctually, arriving at Madden’s evidently shambolic office on February 8. A fortnight later, when Madden and Duke discussed the issue at Parliament House, it remained unread by them and by Jarvis.
The Ombudsman declared himself ”at a loss” to understand such lack of curiosity.
The Ombudsman was also surprised that no one – not the minister, nor his chief of staff Jarvis, nor the head of the communications section Svigos – tried to uncover how Duke arrived at the wording of her media plan.
Jarvis said he did not remember receiving the email and indicated that if he had seen it, he would not have bothered to open it because ”well, I don’t really care”.
Jarvis’s sanguine approach to Duke’s work was not universal in the minister’s office. An adviser, Amanda Oglethorpe, drew Duke’s attention to inaccuracies relating to another issue in the contentious February 24 media plan. Oglethorpe said she was frustrated by Duke’s views on the Windsor proposal. She added that Duke appeared not to be listening to what she was told on various matters. Jarvis, however, said he did not see it as part of his responsibility to manage her workplan.
The Ombudsman expressed concern about Duke’s use of inappropriate language elsewhere in the media plan. At one point it referred to Madden visiting ”an oldies home” as part of the government’s ”respect agenda”.
Sarah Dolan, Duke’s manager, said she felt a shudder of embarrassment when she saw the use of the term ”oldies” in the media following Duke’s accidental dispatch of her email to the ABC.
”This is highly unusual language for a media plan … all I can say is she wrote it and she has quite a vernacular style, a conversational style about her writing and also the way she operates,” Dolan told the Ombudsman.
Duke attended work briefly the day the email was made public, but then had several days’ leave. When she returned on March 1 she was removed from direct media duties. In the meantime she had resumed emailing. Traumatised and shamed, she wrote to Svigos early on Saturday, February, 27. She was too distressed to speak directly to him. ”I have taken the hit and it will keep coming,” she wrote. ”Things will get better but to know what has been said and done to me is never going away.
”I also understand why the decision to do what was done has occurred. It was a Political (sic) decision on the basis of a mistake I had made.”
Duke’s trials aside, the bigger issue is what the affair means for Melbourne. Madden ultimately followed the advice of his expert committee to approve the redevelopment. But the lingering controversy leaves even this decision tainted.
Should the development proceed, the grand Windsor Hotel will be overlooked by ”a slimline glass tower, 91 metres high” and flanked by a contemporary seven-storey building.
Then MLA Judy Maddigan expressed the fears of many opponents to the development when she told the advisory committee: ”It would wreck the parliamentary precinct; make it very difficult to knock back other applications … and you would then lose that whole other aspect that has been there for 150 years.”