5 June 2024

Libs fail in attempt to further probe government's knowledge about public servant's legal action against Integrity Commission

| Claire Fenwicke
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Elizabeth Lee, MLA

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee has accused the ACT Government of trying to prevent scrutiny into what it knew about Katy Haire’s legal action and whether the Education Minister had misled the public. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The ACT Government has been accused of trying to prevent scrutiny into unprecedented legal action taken by a top public servant against the ACT’s anti-corruption watchdog.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee circulated an out-of-order motion during question time on Wednesday (5 June), calling for a committee inquiry into the controversy surrounding Education Directorate head Katy Haire’s Supreme Court action against the ACT Integrity Commission.

This action has requested the court order the Integrity Commission’s investigation into the procurement processes around the Campbell Primary School modernisation project to cease, hold no more public hearings and not hand down any findings.

Ms Lee wanted the probe to find out whether Education Minister Yvette Berry had “misled the public” when she told media she had “no knowledge of the [court case] matter and the government has no knowledge of the matter”.

It would also look into the cost of Ms Haire’s legal fees (which are currently being paid by taxpayers), whether there had been a breach of the Law Officers Legal Services Directions 2023, and the impact, if any, of the Supreme Court action on the active Integrity Commission investigation.

“The key question is: what have they [the government] got to hide?” Ms Lee asked.

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When permission to move the motion was voted down by the Labor and Greens MLAs, Ms Lee then tried to suspend standing orders to allow for the debate.

Ms Lee argued it was important to know why the Attorney-General and Chief Minister had not let Ms Berry know the legal action had been launched.

“[She] is being kept in the dark because her Cabinet colleagues won’t tell her things of such importance because she is an active party in a corruption investigation. The obvious question is: what else are they keeping from her? What else can they not trust her with?” she argued.

“In any other jurisdiction, [Ms Berry] would have the decency, show leadership, and step down. If she refused to do so, the Chief Minister should be calling for her to step down.”

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury previously stated he had been invited by the Supreme Court to intervene during the early stages of the legal action last year but declined on advice from the Solicitor General.

The ACT Government is not a party to the case but is paying Ms Haire’s legal fees.

Mr Rattenbury also previously told the media he had informed the Chief Minister’s office about being approached by the Supreme Court but had decided not to brief Ms Berry’s office given she is a witness in the Integrity Commission’s investigation.

Ms Lee said it was “no surprise” that the Labor and Greens MLAs were “trying to shut down debate”.

“There are no surprises because it is an incredibly uncomfortable subject … not just for the Chief Minister and his heir-apparent, the Deputy Chief Minister, but the Attorney-General and every member of the Labor-Greens Cabinet,” she said.

“The Opposition is trying to get answers on this very, very serious issue, and this government is denying us the opportunity to even move this motion.”

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Chief Minister Andrew Barr shot back, stating Ms Lee should have lodged the motion by midday on Monday (3 June) so that it could have been added to the notice paper.

This then would have given the other MLAs time to consider the motion and prepare a debate.

“Oh, you’ve never done that before,” Ms Lee shouted across the chamber.

ACT Government MLAs have needed to suspend standing orders to have matters heard in the past, including to lodge legislation related to the new Territory plan.

Mr Barr clarified members should have been given more than 10 minutes to see Ms Lee’s motion before she tried to move it.

“Seeking to suspend standing orders on 10 minutes’ notice is not something that the government will support,” he said.

“This motion can wait its turn, like everyone else. Ms Lee, you are not special. You do not have the right to suspend standing orders and disrupt the business of other members on 10 minutes’ notice.”

Given notice of the motion had now been given, Mr Barr said he looked forward to debating the motion in the future once it had been through the “proper processes”.

“The motion will be debated at some point unless the whole purpose of this exercise from the Leader of the Opposition was simply a stunt,” he said.

The Canberra Liberals have also been trying to find out more about this issue during Question Time, asking more than 50 substantive and supplementary questions in two days.

The Integrity Commission investigation, dubbed Operation Kingfisher, has heard allegations of pressure from the Education Minister and union interference over the awarding of the tender.

The next public hearing will be held on 8 July.

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“The key question is: what have they [the government] got to hide?” Ms Lee asked.
Surely the key question is: what’s the good of having the ACT Integrity Commission if court action can stop it from doing its legislated job?

It’s always a good look with government employees investigating the performance and potential corruption of their actions whilst taking legal action against each other that is fully funded by the government themselves.

Said no one ever.

Extraordinary goings on. Government is shooting themself in the foot by not being transparent. Secrecy makes it look like wrongdoing is being covered up. A competent opposition, is there is one, should be able to milk this.

This whole thing stinks to high heavens, the Libs are the party of integrity and transparency in the ACT

A very grubby exercise by the Government. Clearly they have something to hide.

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