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Minister cleared of misleading state parliament over public servant list

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UPDATED | Environment Minister David Speirs has been spared a privileges committee over Opposition claims he misled parliament, after Speaker Vincent Tarzia found he did not impede or obstruct the House in the discharge of its duties.

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Tarzia made the ruling late today after Speirs was accused of misleading parliament over a matter related to public servants who had been seconded to ministerial offices in the previous Labor administration.

In May, Labor’s Tom Koutsantonis asked Speirs whether he or any member of his staff had requested the names of public sector employees from his agencies who had worked in the previous environment minister’s ministerial offices over the last five years “and who are currently employed in his agency or the public sector”.

Speirs answered: “No. Not that I am aware of.”

However, in evidence to the Budget and Finance Committee yesterday, the acting chief executive of the Department for Environment and Water, John Schutz – who was today appointed to the role permanently on a three-year contract – revealed that Speirs’ chief-of-staff, Cullen Bailey, had asked for lists of staff.

“The request was to provide a list of staff and the various roles they may have performed in the previous minister’s office to assist them to establish an interim structure for the minister and understand what roles the minister’s office required to perform its functions,” Schutz told the committee.

Schutz also revealed he had sought advice from the Commissioner for Public Employment about whether it was appropriate to give such information to an incoming minister.

That advice, provided verbally, was that “care” needed to be taken in relation to “the separation of the minister’s role and the public sector’s role”.

Schutz was asked whether Speirs might have given an incorrect answer to the House in May and replied: “I advised the minister’s chief of staff that the minister had given that answer that he would need to consider whether he spoke to the minister about that matter.”

Koutsantonis told parliament today that he believed Speirs had misled the House and asked Tarzia to establish a privileges committee to examine the issue.

“It is inconceivable to believe that the chief of staff, Mr Cullen Bailey, did not raise with the minister the acting chief executive’s concerns about the minister’s incorrect statement to the house on 17 May,” he said.

“The Minister for Environment has deliberately and intentionally misled the House of Assembly. I ask that you give consideration to my matter of privilege and rule if a motion to establish a privileges committee should be given precedence over other business in the House of Assembly.”

In response to questions from InDaily, Speirs released a brief statement denying that he had misled Parliament.

“I categorically dismiss the assertion that I misled Parliament,” he said.

“I am very proud to work with all of the people in my office as well as those public servants in the department.”

Tarzia returned after 5pm to rule that the conversation between Schutz and Bailey suggested that both the request for a staff list and need to correct the record “were not known to the minister”.

“In the chair’s opinion this is not a matter of privilege… the matter could not generally be regarded as tending to impede or obstruct the house in the discharge of its duties,” he said.

Koutsantonis then moved to bring on a privileges committee by way of substantive motion, telling the House: “Our democracy, our parliament, our Westminster system of government cannot tolerate the idea that a chief of staff was told that a minister may have given information incorrectly to the house by his chief executive under an inquiry by the Budget and Finance Committee and that minister must now immediately answer to a privileges committee.”

“There can be no more serious allegation of a minister,” he said.

“Other bodies will investigate the lawfulness of asking for such a list [of employees]… Our responsibility here is to understand why it is that the minister gave that answer and the only way we can find that out is to have a successful motion here. If the Premier is serious about openness and accountability… then they will allow the suspension of standing orders to proceed.”

However, the matter was predictably defeated on party lines, with Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman arguing Koutsantonis “wants to re-litigate this matter based on that worthy authority of the pub test and other standards he wants to impose”.

“It sounded like some rendition out of The Castle, with whatever the vibe was… but the reality is: it is actually an insult to this parliament and to you, sir, that we are being asked to deal with this.

“The matter has been dealt with… and it is a disgraceful waste of this parliament’s time to have this issue re-litigated based on that charade.”

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