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NIGHTMARE ON SPRING STREET: Victorian ministerial staff to be imprisoned for obeying their boss’s orders

joanfergusonparliament The delicious prospect of the imprisonment of members of the Victorian Premier’s Media Unit and other ministerial staffers not in full compliance with the authorit-eye of the slumbering beast that is Victoria’s Legislative Council seems to have thoroughly distracted The Age (nearly in receivership) into a front-page frenzy.

The issue is whether ministerial staff should accept the orders of the superiors not to attend political parliamentary inquiries or whether they must comply with any order of the Legislative Council to appear before its committees and answer its questions.

There are wildly competing views about the legal position on these questions.

The parliament seems generally very reluctant to enforce contempts against it. For example there is no doubt that Victorian prosecutrix Michelle Williams was in contempt of parliament when she illegally used speeches made by a subsequently acquitted MP in committal proceedings. An old but settled and undisputed law inherited from England is that the speeches of MP’s are not to be used against them in a court of law.The parliament did nothing about it. In theory it could have tried, sentenced and imprisoned her for an unlimited period of time. It would have been a just outcome in light of the scandalously thin nature of the case she presented.

Equally, when a couple of patriot lobbyists attended a state parliamentary inquiry and gave brazen non-answers to direct questions from the wannabe barristers on a parliamentary inquiry into gambling licenses, they did nothing to insist on real answers to their questions.

When a senior Treasury bureaucrat Godwin Grech attended a Senate Estimates committee hearing last year into Utegate and gave a fictional account that Jeffrey Archer would have been impressed by, it caused a scandal but led to no parliamentary enforcement against him.

Disobeying the orders of Parliaments seems reasonably common practice, the politics of enforcement seems too difficult and too inclined to backfire most of the time.

And yet, fresh from weekends’ spectacular effort of printing the wrong weeks’ real estate listings in their now besmirched Domain real estate section, The Age is now only going to splash with excitable yarns about Brumby government spindoctors being hauled off to a Parliamentary prison cell for not obeying the commands of the Legislative Council.

There is an already small cell prepared for this task but it could be more crowded than Christmas Island the way the Windsor Hotel issue is unfolding.

Some wags have suggested the staff be “imprisoned” in the Parliamentary precinct’s nearest hotel, the Park Hyatt, which offers most of the facilities afforded Victorian prisoners in Hullstopia.

There would be few Victorians troubled by the idea of Brumby COS “Lieutenant” Dan O’Brien in leg irons and orange jumpsuits but that’s only because they don’t know and love him like his colleagues do.

Jailing minstaffers conjures up all manner of possibilities including the delightful prospect of Liberal upper house patriots Bernie Finn and Inga Peulich serving in a custodial capacity. Their tough on crime approach would be a delight. Those ancient enough to recall the TV series “Prisoner” will already be pondering which of the prospectively imprisoned ministerial advisers would emerge as “Top Dog” or “Quee Bee” in the parliamentary dungeon.

Given the scraps over buffets at minstaff offsites or the crudely territorial standoffs about who gets what carpark near or within 1 Treasury Place, these conflicts would certainly be far more vicious than anything going in the sedentary Legislative Council which – of a winter – seems mostly fueled by red wine.

It goes without saying that Inga Peulich would be cast as Joan Ferguson, the terrifying guard who donned black leather gloves prior to giving any of the inmates a much-deserved beating. She – like Inga – was an instrument for crude but undoubtedly direct justice.

The Age – as ever – loses sight of the real issues. Normally their anti-development mantra would have them opposed to the Windsor Hotel redevelopment which even from our pro-jobs and pro-development editorial position seems to be an inappropriate thing to put in front of the state Parliament. Hopefully we’ll be proved wrong about that.

But in the end, Paul Austin is a lefty who like most of them is a process-obsessive. He lives and breathes process.

And even though the end result of the AgeBC’s breathless reporting on a media adviser’s apparent prejudice against a planning application was a lot of pressure that it be approved, they still seem quite happy with themselves.

We have studied the ultra-left for nearly two decades, in between making and losing fortunes, and we still sometimes struggle to understand the logic they use (or don’t use).

The ABC journalist who unethically traded on an email she was not meant to receive can now ponder in the quiet lull of her inner-city dinner-parties that she – Sarah Farnsworth – is responsible for a radical change to one of Melbourne’s most historic buildings in one of Melbourne’s most sensitive heritage precincts.

If the lucky Windsor owners were willing to give credit where it’s due, they would surely name their proposed construction Farnsworth Tower.

Next time a government wants political cover for a controversial planning decision, they’ll be sure to inadvertently send it to Comrade Farnsworth.

Meanwhile, Liberal, Greens and DLP Legislative Councillors have a serious issue to ponder. While they want government advisers to appear before their politically motivated parliamentary committee to inquire into the ins and outs of the first ever major development proposal facilitated by inner-city left-wing forces at the ABC, they might ultimately have to order their imprisonment to do so.

We know some Brumby government spindoctors and underneath the cool haircuts they can be a stubborn and wilful bunch.

While gone to a more peaceful life of spinning about bushfires, the spirit of Sharon McCrohan haunts the corridors of the media unit.

We suspect many of them would be willing to stand up for the principle that ministers should answer to Parliament not their private office staff.

Perhaps the government will bend on the issue, giving them an out, but if they don’t it wouldn’t surprise me to see Peta Duke and any number of other ministerial adviser be willing to defy the orders of the political opponents in the upper house.

The Liberals have a lot to think about too.

They will soon win election. They’re due for a win. It might not come this year if you believe the published polls, but it will happen, as the shampoo ad once advised.

If the Libs insist on getting Ms Duke to show up rather than her elected boss Labor minister Justin Madden, they will be setting a precedent for a long time.

They might have considered that before Liberal wet Ted Baillieu staffer Simon Troeth – Liberal spindoctor and son of a Senator Judith Troeth – distributed a document (click here to obtain) to the State Parliamentary Press Gallery compiling what some might think were a number of extremist views on the issue, including from former Cain government cabinet secretary Ken Coghill. Coghill while in the Labor Right was actively involved in the government that eventually nearly drove the Victorian economy off a cliff and has since adopted a number of eccentric if not bizarre views about criminalising political conduct and asserting blatant falsehoods like the Legislative Council could call any Victorian any time.

That’s simply not right. They can’t call any lower house minister or MP, a pretty big restriction.

This government – very unwisely in our view – has created an upper house where it is very unlikely for any one party to have a majority in the upper house.

A future Baillieu – or more likely Mulder or O’Brien or Roskam– government will have to live with these same tactics that are ultimately nothing more than political cunning stuntery. Does anyone doubt Labor will gladly return the favour when the time comes?

Regardless of who is in charge, indulging in political show trials that generate nothing but yawn-inducing process stories in The Age does very little for the good government of Victoria.


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  1. Oh Goody, reminds me of a Mao or Stalin communist regime state controlled show trial. Let the games begin !

    Posted by Anonymous | April 13, 2010, 14:12
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  3. The Neo Fascist Liberals are at it again in cahoots with the greenies and the lone member of the Danny Mannix liberal lot

    Posted by Argus Tuft | April 13, 2010, 14:18
  4. Supporters of the GTM need to chant “Choo, choo” when Ted speaks at State Council this weekend.

    Posted by Choo Choo | April 13, 2010, 14:18
  5. It’s all hot air the Libs and the Greens are not going to put a 25 year old media adviser in jail for contempt of parliament. This stuff just makes a good headline and drums home the opposition’s arguments against the government re the Windsor Redevelopment Memo-gate in an election year.

    Oppositions always demand ministerial advisers testify and in the end they never do as it is a long standing Westminster convention that the Minister is accountable and personal staff fall between the cracks as neither public servants nor elected representatives. Plus oppositions become governments and don’t want their staff being made to answer questions in a public forum (this after all would make it harder to use your staff as scapegoats when in a spot of bother).

    Posted by Anonymous | April 13, 2010, 14:43
  6. the longer that Hulls has to trot out the frankly awful ‘protector of convention’ line and the story continues to run and bore everyone senseless, the more that voters start to think ‘enough already, just let them testify so we don’t have to hear this anymore’.
    while it’s all a bit of bluster, it’s fair to say that the longer it continues and the government has to defend it’s position, the more it appears that there genuinely is something stinky that’s gone on.

    Posted by sooty | April 13, 2010, 15:58
  7. Actually, given the archaic procedures being cited, the best way to decide this is a duel at 20 paces between the Serjeant at Arms and the Usher of the Black Rod.

    Posted by sooty | April 13, 2010, 16:02
  8. If size matters, it seems the Serjeant has it in the bag. http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/pres5.html

    Posted by sooty | April 13, 2010, 17:20
  9. The government would stand a greater chance of re-election if they locked up the entire media unit and threw away the keys.

    Posted by mung bean man | April 13, 2010, 17:31
  10. I seem to recall that we all agreed with something similar happening at Nuremberg…

    Posted by The Labservatives | April 13, 2010, 17:35
  11. Where is my pppaaaanccaaakkkeee sttaaaaacckkk????

    Posted by Garth Head | April 13, 2010, 18:08
  12. If Major Gary Powers was still alive, he could advise on how to appear before such a “trial”.

    Posted by Anonymous | April 13, 2010, 18:32
  13. They will be locked up in the Members Dining Room and made to listen to proceedings in the Upper House whilst reading the collecred Hansard contributions of David Davis. Just ot make sure that they understand that this is not soft sentencing they will be required to eat the offerings of the Parliament House kitchen.

    Get real. These buffoons expect to be taken seriously as an alternative Government??

    Posted by Black Rod | April 13, 2010, 18:49
  14. Bracks had an offer of from the Libs in 2003 to abolish this looney bin.

    Why didn’t he take it?

    Posted by House of warped view | April 13, 2010, 18:55
  15. it was labor, not the “parliament” that stopped an inquiry on privilege into Michelle Williams. you know that andy.

    Posted by cuonthetram | April 13, 2010, 19:06
  16. Love the art header for this one Vex!

    Can you please review your editorial policy to always bracket the financial state of your subjects on reference, even if it has nothing to actually do with anything in the article – we do enjoy it:

    “…distracted The Age (nearly in receivership) into a …”

    Posted by Blackmambo | April 13, 2010, 19:10
  17. It just sells newspapers it will never happen, locking up advisors.
    Although some need castrating.

    Posted by BOB | April 13, 2010, 19:31
  18. Can someone tell me the breakdown of numbers on the Upper House Committee? e.g. How many Lib’s, ALP etc.

    Posted by John | April 13, 2010, 20:05
  19. I suggest that Parliament House itself be turned into a detention centre for the dangerous loonies among us who want to be politicians. Parliamentary question times show how crazy some of these people are.

    Posted by Bedlam | April 13, 2010, 20:52
  20. Duh!! Johno I think I got it wrong again.

    Posted by Dopey Madden | April 14, 2010, 0:36
  21. Staffers run the show so they should be accountable as well. Senior media advisers and chief of staffs must face a inquiry over the Windsor affair. The public deserve to no the truth with the Windsor affair. The only reason Madden didn’t oppose that development was because after the leaked media plan. Madden had to do the opposite of the media plan. Everybody in the bureaucracy and in vicmin knows that after Peta Duke’s email Madden had to do the complete opposite. The government (mafia) is fighting this because they know how the bimbo (jukes) will absolutely shit herself and tell all in the enquiry.

    Posted by big bad Rob Hulls | April 14, 2010, 12:02
  22. Nice isn’t it, the way Rob Hulls is happy to leap to the defence of this helpless young woman. He forces law firms to use female barristers yet thinks his party’s own female advisers aren’t able to deal with a series of questions from the bullies in the upper house. Sexist hypocrite… I hope Joan Kirner and her Emily’s List people are suitably outraged by this neanderthall.

    Posted by god help us Rob Hulls is deputy premier | April 14, 2010, 12:42
  23. We all have Rob Hulls and Justin Madden to thank for all of this. Let’s not forget Svigos and his second to none hiring abilities.

    Posted by Anonymous | April 14, 2010, 17:40
  24. There is a culture of cover-up and denial in the Brumby Government.

    The Parliamentary Opposition is weak and never challenges or reviews issues of integrity. Witnesses and whistle blows are allowed to be subjected to harassment and intimidation.

    John Cain Jr. Victorian Government’s Solicitor General has become Brumby’s ‘Keep them quite” man.

    John Cain misuses public funds to try and prevent public discussion and disclosure of government incompetence.

    Posted by Cover Up or suffer | April 15, 2010, 19:31
  25. Nice isn’t it, the way Rob Hulls is happy to leap to the defence of this helpless young woman. He forces law firms to use female barristers yet thinks his party’s own female advisers aren’t able to deal with a series of questions from the bullies in the upper house. Sexist hypocrite… I hope Joan Kirner and her Emily’s List people are suitably outraged by this neanderthall.

    Posted by Dennis | April 26, 2010, 16:17