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Richardson: An extraordinarily unhelpful standoff

Opinion

My enemy’s enemy is my friend: the old proverb remains ever-relevant in politics, demonstrated again this week by SA Labor’s enthusiastic cheerleading for the state’s anti-corruption watchdog Bruce Lander.

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The same Labor Party, of course, that in government butted heads with the ICAC Commissioner over his repeated calls for public maladministration hearings.

This morning Opposition frontbencher Tom Koutsantonis fronted media to tut-tut about “the Marshall Government’s escalating war with ICAC”, accusing Liberal members of parliament’s Crime and Public Integrity Committee of “attempting to gag Lander and prevent him from appearing” before the inquiry.

Yep, the same Tom Koutsantonis who in the same committee last year flagged referring the ICAC to an independent reviewer over claims a court ruling raising “serious questions about ICAC exceeding its powers” (his motion was later withdrawn after the ruling was overturned on appeal).

The same Koutsantonis, indeed, who was embarrassed – though not quite excoriated – by Lander’s 2015 report into the Gillman debacle, which highlighted his penchant for colourful self-expression, inadvertently introducing the phrase “conversational swearing” into the SA political lexicon.

But this week, whatever historical gripes may have existed between Lander and Labor have been set aside. Because this week, Lander has lobbed one of his traditional political grenades, and it’s landed square in the Premier’s office.

Which does highlight the odd common thread running through the history of Lander’s interactions with the government of the day.

An obvious one being that he has never exactly endeared himself to the ruling party.

And another, less obvious one being that he doesn’t seem to like people being rude to him.

His reports on Gillman and Oakden were scathing about governmental processes, but each made a particular point of highlighting the abrasive manner of the relevant minister (Koutsantonis and Leesa Vlahos, respectively).

And now, Lander has publicly outed Steven Marshall for saying one thing publicly and another thing privately.

And, moreover, saying the private thing in a fairly robust way.

Across various media yesterday, but initially on ABC Radio, Lander recounted his chat to the Premier about his recent report into the state’s health bureaucracy, which was unambiguously titled: “Troubling Ambiguity: Governance in SA Health”.

Marshall, Lander told ABC, “said publicly that he’s found the report very useful, very helpful [but] that wasn’t what he conveyed to me”.

Instead, he recounted, the Premier told him – in a manner angry and “forceful” – that “the report had put back the chances of correcting the problems in health”, by which “I think he meant that the report was inflammatory”.

Lander’s response: “I defended myself… I said I thought the public had a right to know about this, the public should know that a person in my position had reached a state of frustration in relation to an agency which had a budget in excess of $6 billion, and that there was significant waste.”

Essentially, then, his debate with the Government is about the way in which these concerns are highlighted and addressed.

Marshall, of course, had previously told parliament that the report was “extraordinarily helpful”.

Politically, however, it’s proving anything but.

The Libs, for a start, bungled their initial response to Lander’s missive, rolling out a taskforce dedicated to addressing its scathing revelations without the relevant minister having actually read the report.

Moreover, when Lander first publicly flagged his serious concerns about SA Health, he intimated a proper inquiry would cost an extra $2 million from Treasury – money the Government has steadfastly refused to stump up.

“I just genuinely don’t think that we need an independent inquiry,” Marshall told reporters last week.

True enough, Lander did note that the malaise was being partly addressed by the appointment of KordaMentha to oversee the administration of the Central Adelaide Local Health Network.

But he evidently believes the problem goes beyond that – and that what is required is not merely repair but accountability.

And herein lies the heart of his standoff with Marshall.

In parliament yesterday, the Premier said he stood by his previous public comments, but added a kicker: “We welcomed [Lander’s report] when it arrived but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been demoralising for many of the very hardworking men and women who are working very diligently at the moment, trying to turn around the mess that we inherited from the previous government.”

“Let’s be clear,” he went on. “There is nothing new in this report. These were the same issues that were raised with the Government in March 2018.”

Lander, it seems, begs to differ – which raises an uneasy question about the line the Government is traversing in its refusal to countenance an independent inquiry.

If a state establishes an independent corruption watchdog, and if that that watchdog then tells the state government there is likely systemic corruption in one of its key agencies but that it needs more resources to properly audit the extent – withholding those resources appears not merely a budgetary consideration but an ethical one as well.

But fear not – there is a solution at hand.

While Labor in government butted heads with Lander over his repeated calls for public maladministration hearings, the Libs opted to legislate to allow such inquiries.

The problem was, Lander didn’t like their model, and Labor further complicated it with a stack of amendments…. and as things stand the Bill remains stuck in legislative limbo, having failed to reach a second reading vote.

That means if parliament is prorogued, the Bill will lapse and the Government will have to start the whole process again next year.

In the meantime, we’re two years into a four-year injection of funds to enable the ICAC to establish the infrastructure required for holding public inquiries.

Presumably, that money remains unspent, and half of it may have to be handed back or extended over a longer timeframe once the legislation actually becomes law.

In other words, there is money sitting there, earmarked for the ICAC, which could be simply reallocated towards a thorough investigation into SA Health.

Budget crisis solved! You’re welcome.

But, of course, this isn’t really about the Government’s reluctance to part with $2 million – of course it’s not.

After all, the bill for retaining KordaMentha is well over ten times that much, and grew by more than that amount this year alone – justified by the fact CALHN’s own costs are out by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rather, this appears a demarcation dispute about how – and how publicly – to deal with the enduring problems of SA Health.

In parliament yesterday, Marshall was asked if he considered Bruce Lander to be “a man of integrity”, and a man in whom he had confidence.

He response to both questions was: “Absolutely.”

It’s just that he evidently absolutely doesn’t think he’s the man to be investigating SA Health.

And, politically at least, Lander’s persistence in weighing in on the matter very publicly – at the end of a year in which not much has gone right for the Marshall Government – isn’t extraordinarily helpful at all.

In fact, it’s proving quite the opposite.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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