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REVEALED: Minister haunted by Cemeteries Authority standoff

Local

A messy standoff over Planning Minister Stephan Knoll’s attempt to sack the former Cemeteries Authority chair prompted an accusation in parliament that the State Government acted unlawfully, InDaily can reveal.

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InDaily first reported in August last year that Knoll had replaced several members of the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority board, including its chair, prominent lawyer Ester Huxtable.

But a series of letters between Knoll and Huxtable – dated between May and August and released to the Opposition under Freedom of Information laws – reveals a bitter dispute surrounding the minister’s attempt to sack the chair.

According to the documents, Huxtable wrote to Knoll on May 23 in response to a phone conversation with the minister the previous week.

“In that call you expressed your view that the Board should take a new direction,” she wrote.

“However, no mention was made as to what the new direction was and how that direction differed from the current direction of the Board… furthermore nothing was said as to why it was necessary for myself and other Board members to be removed to carry out the new direction.”

She notes that “at our first meeting since you became our Minister and subsequently, you have complimented the Board and the Authority on our achievements and goals”.

Huxtable goes on to suggest she should be compensated if her tenure is ended prematurely.

“My term… expires on the 31st December 2021 and I had intended to continue as Chair until that time and would have welcomed a further term thereafter,” she wrote, noting that the authority has “a number of major projects planned for the next 2 to 3 years” and “I would be very disappointed in not being Chair when they come to fruition”.

It would not be unreasonable for me to be paid out for the balance of my term

“I am still happy to continue as Chair and will embrace whatever new directions you wish the Board to take,” she continued.

“However, if you desire the Board to have a new Chair, along with other new directors as well, then it would not be unreasonable for me to be paid out for the balance of my term, plus an ex gratia payment for my 7-plus years of service on the Board and the various Committees for which there has been no remuneration.”

She calculates the remainder of her term would have garnered “at least a further $52,541.00 inclusive of superannuation and I seek this amount as well as an ex gratia payment of $25,000”.

On July 5, Knoll responded by letter, taking “this opportunity to thank [Huxtable] for your time served on the Board as the Chair and the great contribution you have made during this time”.

“I acknowledge that you were appointed just prior to the state election, but advise that in accordance with the Adelaide Cemeteries Act… I have made the decision to end your appointment effective immediately,” he wrote.

“With regard to your request to be paid out for your remaining term, that request is not accepted… under neither the Act or your letter of appointment is compensation for early termination stated.”

But Huxtable wrote again, on July 8, pointing out to Knoll that the Act “does not authorise you to immediately end my appointment”, and that “you can only recommend my removal as a Director on a sufficient ground”.

“It can only be the Governor… who can remove me from office, and he has not done so,” she wrote.

She continues that her four-year term under the Act “is equivalent to a contract and, by law, I am entitled to be compensated for my contract being terminated early”.

“I also note that you again thank me for the time I have served on the Board and the great contribution I have made during this time,” she wrote.

“I intend to pursue this matter.”

It can only be the Governor who can remove me from office, and he has not done so

According to the documents released under FOI, the minister’s office then forwarded this letter on to the Crown Solicitor’s Office for advice.

Then, on August 2, Knoll wrote a final letter to Huxtable, telling her that under the Act “I recommended that the Governor remove you as chair of the board of the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority”.

“On 2 August 2019 the Governor removed you from office under… the Act, effective from that date,” he wrote.

“The terms of your appointment were governed entirely by the Act, including any determination by the Governor as to remuneration… Accordingly there was no implied contract relating to your appointment.

“Neither the Act nor the determination of the Governor make any allowance for a termination payment or compensation for early termination.”

Many of the former board members replaced have strong ties to the ALP, including former Labor MP Robyn Geraghty, veteran union boss Wayne Hanson – whose son Justin is now a Legislative Councillor – and experienced board director Mary Patetsos, who is married to former federal minister Nick Bolkus.

Knoll’s new appointees included chair Tristan Just, a Commonwealth Bank executive and experienced corporate adviser who previously worked with Knoll’s family company, Barossa Fine Foods, on its acquisition of Standom Smallgoods.

Among those brought in was also Liberal-linked businessman Johnathon Matthews, and Joanna Andrew, a partner in Mellor Olsson and a prominent member of the Liberal Party who last year stood unsuccessfully for preselection in the federal seat of Sturt.

Under parliamentary privilege last month, Labor frontbencher Tom Koutsantonis quizzed Knoll about the board changes, with the minister arguing: “After having undertaken a skills matrix in relation to the Cemeteries Authority, it was pretty clear that there were some skill deficiencies on that board.”

“What we were doing was replacing a board filled with Labor cronies with people who, in my opinion and in the Government’s opinion, are very well-credentialed people to help run an organisation that is in the process of undertaking some change.”

Koutsantonis disputed any suggestion that Huxtable could be described as a ‘Labor crony’, noting: “To the best of my knowledge, she is not a member of the Australian Labor Party, nor has she ever been.”

“She is just a well-respected lawyer, and there was an attempt to have her terminated unlawfully,” he told parliament.

Koutsantonis said that Knoll’s attempt to dismiss Huxtable unilaterally raises “very, very serious allegations” of potential misconduct or maladministration.

Knoll is currently on leave, but InDaily sought a response from his office as to whether he acted outside his authority in seeking to sack the chair instead of recommending her removal to the Governor and, if so, whether the attempted sacking was unlawful.

In response, a spokesperson said in a statement: “The Minister wrote to three former board members regarding their appointments and the new board members were appointment [sic] in August last year.”

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