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The premier, cabinet ministers and ministerial advisers should be made to appear before a parliamentary inquiry into the October floods, the opposition and integrity experts say, after revelations ministerial staff asked for changes to a media statement from Melbourne Water.
The call comes after emails, obtained by The Age under freedom of information laws, showed Melbourne Water – a government-owned statutory authority – in February sent a statement announcing the resignation of its flood inquiry chair to Water Minister Harriet Shing’s office for approval.
The minister’s office then edited the statement, including removing a reference to Nick Wimbush’s resignation being in the “best interests of the review and the community”.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Premier Daniel Andrews denied that his office approved or rejected the statement about Wimbush’s resignation and said Shing was simply being kept in the loop – despite the subject line of the email stating, in capital letters, “for approval”.
“It’s appropriate that the minister, who might well be asked about these matters, is in the loop,” he said. “Nothing more, nothing less. It’s quite, quite common.”
But the chair of the independent Accountability Round Table, former Democrats senator Lyn Allison, said the premier appeared to be trying to cover up his government’s media management of statutory bodies.
“The premier must face the flood review and explain why,” she said.
A parliamentary inquiry into the October floods was established in February after the Coalition and Greens joined forces in the state’s upper house. That inquiry is due to hand down its findings by June 30, 2024.
Liberal MP David Davis said ministerial staff were mentioned on 40 occasions in flood review inquiry documents, indicating a high level of involvement in the probe.
“Shing and her office are clearly up to their necks in the details of this inquiry, and she and the relevant ministerial staff should be called to front the flood inquiry to explain their decisions on their inquiry,” he said.
The latest revelations about the emails come just weeks after the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission released the findings of its Operation Daintree report, which found ministerial advisers exerted undue political pressure on public servants to award a lucrative training contract to a union in the lead-up to the 2018 state election.
In that report, a former Andrews government minister described the current government as “very centralised with the PPO [Premier’s Private Office] having its tentacles everywhere”.
Griffith University political analyst Paul Williams told The Age that the optics of the Melbourne Water email chain were poor.
A reasonable person “might easily conclude that it’s inappropriate for an arm’s-length statutory authority to seek out ministerial advice on what could be described as a political matter”, he said.
In February, Wimbush stepped aside as independent lead of the Maribyrnong flood review over a perceived conflict of interest that Melbourne Water repeatedly ignored advice to disclose.
On Tuesday, Andrews questioned Melbourne Water’s decision to name Wimbush as the chair of its inquiry, presenting as proof that the statutory authority acted independently.
“How that appointment got made when the person involved himself had raised these [potential conflict of interest] issues is beyond me. I can’t understand how that happens,” he said.
“But, again, it speaks to the fact they are an independent agency, and they act independently. They demonstrate that in good decisions and, indeed, in not-so-good decisions.”
Greens deputy leader Ellen Sandell said it was “totally inappropriate” for the minister’s office to be involved in the finalisation of the Melbourne Water statement.
“The way Daniel Andrews and Labor attempt to exert total control over everything – including independent agencies – should be of great concern to anyone who cares about integrity and good governance in Victoria,” she said.
“No one is buying Labor’s attempts to deflect blame.”
A government spokesperson late on Tuesday said no member of the Andrews government or ministerial adviser had interfered with the independence of Melbourne Water’s Maribyrnong River Flood Review.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong,” they said.
“While the opposition is playing political games with the flood inquiry, we’re getting on and supporting flood-affected families, businesses and communities all over the state, and awaiting the recommendations of the review and inquiry – looking at ways we can protect Victorians from future flood events.”
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