ACT Minister for Skills Chris Steel has survived a no-confidence motion after the Opposition sounded “alarm bells” over millions of dollars in “ill-defined” contracts awarded to a consultant by the Canberra Institute of Technology.
Yesterday, Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee demanded Mr Steel answer questions about what contracts of more than $8 million awarded to consultant and “systems thinker” Patrick Hollingworth had been for.
Mr Steel responded that he didn’t know, and he sent a please explain letter to CIT asking for a jargon-free response by early next week.
The Skills Minister then revealed he had first raised concerns about previous CIT contracts totalling $3.36 million with Mr Hollingworth as early as last March and had questioned what they were for and whether they were a good use of public money.
Ms Lee, however, blasted the Minister’s response yesterday as “damage control”.
“The Minister knew,” she repeated three times.
“In a move that is inexcusable and unforgivable – after the Minister knew and asked questions about these dodgy contracts – CIT then went on to award two further contracts totalling $5.5 million to the same contractor,” Ms Lee told the ACT Legislative Assembly.
“The buck stops with the Minister … he must stand up and take responsibility for this egregious use of taxpayer funds and he must do the right thing and resign.”
Ms Lee said it was absolutely “unacceptable” that Mr Steel had allowed additional contracts to be awarded under his watch.
She accused the ACT Greens of calling for transparency but being “complicit” in the “culture of secrecy” fostered by the government to which they belong.
In response to Ms Lee, Mr Steel reiterated points he’d made yesterday in a statement – that the CIT board operates under a governing board and executive that is external to government.
“As the Minister for Skills, I have policy oversight over the delivery of vocational education and training in the ACT but not the day-to-day delivery and oversight of CIT operation,” he told the ACT Legislative Assembly.
Mr Steel said he’d contacted the board in March about the initial four contracts awarded to Mr Hollingworth’s companies after media inquiries brought them to his attention.
He was then told that CIT, if it decided to acquire future “change management and professional services”, would follow appropriate government procurement processes.
Therefore, Mr Steel said he had been “concerned” to learn of the latest contract.
But the Minister argued the usual and correct process – of not informing his office – had been followed.
“This is as it should be … ministers and our offices should not be directly involved in procurement processes by government agencies or public entities like the CIT,” he told the Assembly.
But he said he wanted to make it clear that this did not mean the government was defending the signing of the latest contract and he too wanted answers.
“If this is procurement is found to have been undertaken without integrity and probity, then as Minister for Skills, I will take further action.”
Neither Labor nor the Greens would support the no-confidence motion, but they did urge Auditor-General Michael Harris to look at the contracts.
Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said there were serious questions to be asked about the contract, including the fact that the contract came in just $10 below the threshold at which it would have gone before the government’s procurement board.
“We need to get to the bottom of why this contract was given and what is being delivered from it … most people are scratching their heads and wondering about the [cost] and the detail of these contracts,” he told the Assembly.
Mr Rattenbury said Mr Harris would be the most appropriate person to review the contracts but should he choose not to, the Assembly would then look at other options it had at its disposal.
But he said the Opposition’s motion was “getting ahead of itself”.
“The Liberal Party is seeking a political death penalty before the trial has even taken place,” he said.