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Olsen faces parliament grilling on Oval plan

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There was some symmetry in the fact that when former Premier John Olsen today addressed parliament for the first time in 17 years, it was once again to defend his handling of a project he insists will be a boon for South Australians.

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When he quit parliament after standing down as Premier in late 2001, it was after questions about his deal that saw Motorola grow from six employees to 400 led to an independent inquiry which handed down a scathing report that he had provided misleading and dishonest evidence – a finding he strenuously denied.

Today, Olsen was back before an inquiry – this time a parliamentary committee established to probe the Liberal Government’s $42 million loan to the Stadium Management Authority to build a boutique hotel at Adelaide Oval.

Labor members of the committee quizzed Olsen – the chair of the SANFL, deputy chair of the SMA and president of the SA Liberal Party – about whether he had a conflict of interest in seeking a loan from the Marshall Government.

“You’re the former premier if this state; you’re president of the Liberal Party… the SMA has a proposition to government to get them to hand over money for a hotel development,” committee chair Ian Hunter asked.

“Did you not question yourself over whether you’re best person to go and talk to government? Did anyone else think there might have been a conflict of interest?”

Olsen strongly denied any such conflict.

“I think in that context you underestimate the Premier of this state who has a very firm, focussed mind about process, and who wouldn’t be at all influenced about the fact I might be president of the Liberal Party,” he said.

“It’s not as if it’s a non-public position.”

Hunter pressed on, saying: “You’re saying no-one gave it a second thought?”

Olsen insisted he had “no hesitation in standing full square behind what the SANFL decides and not be compromised by anything else”.

He was also pressed on whether he raised the hotel plan in a meeting with Infrastructure Minister Stephan Knoll, just days before his personal assistant sought a meeting with Premier Steven Marshall to request the loan.

“No,” Olsen insisted.

“Let me take you back to my time as Premier… I used to get pretty annoyed when people would sidle up to me and say ‘I’ve got this project’… I always used to treat them as thought bubbles… and dismiss it.

“That sort of behaviour used to annoy me as Premier.”

Asked why the matter, which was first discussed with the Commonwealth Bank as early as 2016, was never raised with the former Labor Government, Olsen said: “Why would I raise it then, when it didn’t know I’d have a project that could be raised?”

“I wouldn’t put myself in an embarrassing position to advocate for something that wouldn’t proceed,” he said.

He said he didn’t specifically recall what was discussed with Knoll, a few weeks after the 2018 state election, but said it was “most probably talking about matters such as composition of the parliamentary party and the positions of various people in the new parliament”.

“I have no recollection whatsoever of raising this matter (the Oval Hotel) externally,” he said.

He said the SMA board was aware that he and chair Kevin Scarce would lobby Marshall over the loan.

“I’ve been a very strong advocate of this proposal for a long time,” he said.

“It improves a government asset… and Adelaide Oval pays for the improvement of a government asset.”

SA-based AFL clubs Adelaide and Port Adelaide have previously declared they were kept in the dark about the hotel plan until after it was made public in the media, with both now pushing to have representatives on the SMA board.

Olsen told the inquiry that suggestion had first been mooted as far back as 2014 in meetings with both clubs, the SMA and the AFL, but the notion was ruled out by then-AFL boss Andrew Demetriou.

He said Demetriou told the meeting ‘no, you’re getting your licences back, you’re getting a clean stadium… you two football clubs shouldn’t be exposed to risk’ because ‘you’ll be back to us, the AFL, to top it up’.

“He said the AFL clubs should never be exposed to one dollar of risk at Adelaide Oval,” Olsen said.

He pointed out that the Crows and Port have 110 and 158 per cent uplift respectively at the Oval compared to their former Football Park home, saying: “Both those clubs get far more than they ever signed up for in the original proposal.”

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