Ted Baillieuâ€™s closest ministerial mate, Victorian Liberal upper house leader David Davis is a loudly ticking time-bomb for the Victorian Liberal government, party insiders have told VEXNEWS.
They point to his disastrous day yesterday where the Opposition asked him in Parliament whether heâ€™d received a personal financial benefit from anyone in relation to the payment of a huge legal bill heâ€™d incurred after slagging off then Labor state secretary Stephen Newnham.
Davis denied it in the Legislative Council chamber, arguably misleading the house or certainly leaving a very misleading impression:
Hon. M. P. PAKULA (Western Metropolitan) — I thank the minister for his answer. Following on from my initial question, I ask him in his capacity of representing the Premier whether to the best of his knowledge any minister has obtained personal financial benefit from moneys raised by the 500 Club?
Carnage ensued when it became clear that Labor hard-man Martin Pakula had proof that Davis had received the personal benefit he had impliedly denied.
He went on to say:
Not good. His refusal to answer reasonable questions on the issue again in todayâ€™s Question Time doesnâ€™t look good either.
In some past administrations, his position would have deemed untenable.
Davis has also failed to disclose the enormous gift on the Parliamentary pecuniary interests register, insiders say, although he can update the register this year and still be within the reasonably loose guidelines.
He ought to do so immediately. He ought to come clean about the whole sordid mess. Itâ€™s always the cover-up that kills you.
Davisâ€™s defence is that the Liberal party supported him and thatâ€™s no problem. And if the 500 Club funded the gift then thatâ€™s OK too because they are part of the Liberal party and indeed itâ€™s true that it is a large and long-established organisation. But itâ€™s also true they collect money from lots of people, many of them with direct exposure to decisions Davis will and does make as Health minister.
Davis clearly picked the wrong target in Stephen Newnham, perhaps Laborâ€™s best campaign strategist in a generation.
Thatâ€™s part of the danger here in ministers receiving such large gifts, from their own political party or otherwise. He might not know who gives the 500 Club or Liberal party money but those giving it sure do. And they might have an expectation that the minister and gift recipient should be grateful for their largesse. Davis could have lost his home potentially, if the gift had not been made. So we can reasonably assume heâ€™s very grateful.
Indeed, under the governmentâ€™s proposed IBAC, there is little doubt the circumstances of the gift from the Liberal party to the minister and his own interactions as Health Minister with those who donate to it will be given considerable scrutiny by the absurdly over-funded anti-corruption body which will have not much else to do except terrorise the prominent. The chip-on-the-shoulder brigade attracted to work at agencies like IBAC could very well see that the party or its fundraising arm was being used to launder money from businesses with commercial stakes in the Health sector to pay off the Health ministerâ€™s debts. Nonsense probably but thatâ€™s exactly why anti-corruption commissions are such a dangerous joke.
So heâ€™s on dangerous ground. And presumably is much more careful to use parliamentary privilege not his own letterhead to make dangerous claims about his foes.
Davis clearly picked the wrong target in Stephen Newnham, perhaps Laborâ€™s best campaign strategist in a generation.
DAY OF MASS DISTRACTION
The headlines below are not the headlines a government wants the day after its budget, which was strangely not particularly well received in any event, on television news or in the newspapers:
They were slammed for lacking vision and failing to have a debt reduction strategy, Labor talking points that were enthusiastically repeated by the media whoâ€™ve given Ted and his crew a shorter honeymoon than Price William and Pippaâ€™s sister had. This is not an accident, itâ€™s the price the self-indulgent Premier has paid for employing Josephine Cafagna and not properly engaging with potential allies in the press who were reasonably kind to Brumby and Bracks and Kennett but only because they made the effort.
Check these out. And all because Davis made a secret of who had funded his legal bills.
Liberals paid MPâ€™s legal bill
â€ŽThe Liberal partyâ€™s well-regarded state director Damien Mantach claimed that Davisâ€™s law firm had issued the bill to the 500 Club â€œin errorâ€ which gives rise to questions why they were billing them in the first place. Presumably, their slow-paying client had told them to do so.
While close with Baillieu and unlikely to be dumped unless charged with a serious crime, Liberal insiders think Davis has been a surprisingly inept minister.
150 DAYS OF SLOTH
His handling of the relatively straight-forward matter of releasing a health blueprint within 150 days of being elected was an embarrassing nuisance for the government and reflective of what is said to be a somnolent approach to his duties. When the document was eventually released, it showed every sign of being quickly cobbled together.
His foolish decision to defend a loser defamation case â€“ against all legal advice â€“ and then to stick his party with the bill has caused those advising Baillieu to seriously and loudly question his judgment.
Others say that his drinking when in Spring Street is still on the verge of being out of control. Long-heard whispers about inappropriate relationships, including with a person working a the Australian Medical Association, also do him no good in party circles where his factional foes are keen to run him down.
His role as a factional uber-hack for the Baillieu group is probably the only reason the underperforming minister is being retained by Baillieu.
CLOUT WITHOUT DOUBT
Itâ€™s well-known within government circles that the two spending ministers Deputy Premier and Police Minister Peter Ryan and Davis were able to circumvent Treasurer Kim Wells and get their spendin bids approved by the Premier. Baillieu is keen to keep both men sweet, Ryan because he succumbs to his strong-arming persuasion and recognises his superior political intellect and in Davisâ€™s case because they are chums. The two have attracted considerable ire from cabinet colleagues who express great angst about the Premierâ€™s favoritism.
Baillieu has foolishly allowed the normal business of political party fundraising to appear far more tainted and sleazy than it probably really is.
This time last year, Labor had a 1500 person budget function where anyone who was anyone showed up to be bored to death about the largely non-controversial document. We assume it was a highly profitable enterprise.
This year, the newly elected Liberals had about 400 people show up to an event that was apparently run at cost and had plenty of school-kids attending, either as a form of corporal punishment or perhaps to discourage those showing some interest in public life.
This is the time of the political cycle where they should be riding high, raising a fortune from all those businesses who were caught supporting Labor and assumed Brumby would be elected but were keen to make amends.
â€œHEâ€™S NO KENNETTâ€
Business is being made to feel as welcome by the Baillieu government as one of Osama bin Ladenâ€™s wives these days at the Abbottabad market. Many complain they canâ€™t get access to Baillieu or his ministers. They are greatly puzzled about the fact that the previous Labor government was much nicer to them than the Libs. They assumed it was a temporary phenomenon and that the glory days of Kennett keeping Victoria open for business would return. Thereâ€™s currently no sign of it.
Itâ€™s worth considering where this sordid David Davis fundraising scandal started.
It referenced the Ombudsmanâ€™s report into Brimbank council and essentially radically misrepresented the contents of the report to have a go at Newnham. While the report was scathing about many â€“ based on very little at all as it turned out â€“ it said nothing of an adverse kind about Newnham at all. The release didnâ€™t even get much of a run in the press, it was just a silly and self-indulgent exercise by Davis whoâ€™d been provoked into it by a cheeky letter from Newnham to Davis.
Being as gentlemanly as the average lizard, Davis privately blamed the mistake on a staffer.
The shrewd and gutsy Newnham â€“ against quite strong resistance by the buffoons in Premier Brumbyâ€™s office and some in the caucus â€“ obtained legal advice which assured him that he had a strong defamation case against Davis and proceeded to sue. Several know-all ministers strongly opposed the move, we are told. Newnham was proven right when the whole proceedings seemed to drive Davis completely mad and it appears to have cost the Libs well in excess of $200,000.
Out of the job for nearly two years, the astute and tough former state secretary is still tormenting his adversaries. He has every reason to be amused about the whole thing.
Newnhamâ€™s cunning plan compares with the Premier Ted Baillieuâ€™s puzzling defamation proceedings against the ALP, in relation to seemingly undisputed claims that his real estate firm profited from the previous Liberal governmentâ€™s sale of schools and hospital sites.
Red Ted shows no signs of backing off and it seems neither side are willing to settle the case out of court, with Labor salivating about the prospect of having the incoming Premier filmed walking into the Supreme Court building like heâ€™s defending fraud charges and potentially being subject to embarrassing cross-examination about the circumstances of his commercial involvement in previous state government asset sales, many years ago.
Many thought Laborâ€™s attack ads on Baillieu were far too soft at the last election (other than his mates at The Age who were appalled by them or at least pretended to be), a fact that haunts many of them given they lost government by one seat. Theyâ€™ll be keen not to constrain themselves in any respect ahead of the 2014 state poll by apologising in any respect. Suing on an attack ad where the facts underlying the ad are not disputed and are at least to some extent politically embarrassing is clearly moronic, a proposition that would be advanced by anyone pretending to be in the business of providing political advice to the Premier, as the Logies attending Baillieu private office purports to be.
Speaking of political embarrassment, there is much talk of the political curtain dropping on Victorian Speaker Ken Smith, whose crude partisanship, sleazy Chinese business entanglements and general ineptitude are now the widespread subject of mirth and disparagement across the state Parliament.
While Davis will be saved, the end is surely nigh for the red-faced Smith whose increasingly frenzied hand-signals are evidence not of waving but of drowning. He is quite possibly the most over-promoted self-important boof-head in Victorian history (excluding faux-battler Les Twentyman, of course [photographed here getting stuck into a slap-up solo feed at a very expensive upmarket yuppie eatery in South Melbourne last weekend]).
TOUGH TIMES FOR INCUMBENTS
The political cycle is getting shorter. Bad news travels faster than ever. Secrets harder to keep. Cynicism for those we elect has perhaps never been higher. Federal Labor has been a victim of all that, compounded by having an ideologically sound but psychologically troubled first Prime Minister and its continued desire to fight on every possible front including imposing a jobs-exporting carbon tax that wonâ€™t solve the problem it is said to be designed to fix. And then thereâ€™s Dutch disease, the gutting of our manufacturing base because of the high dollar, something thatâ€™s going to hit Victorian industry very hard in the next few years.
The Victorian Liberals arenâ€™t picking fights everywhere like Laborâ€™s Club Fed All-Stars but they do seem surprisingly uninspired when they should be triumphant about an unexpected win and seizing the middle ground and reform agenda to set themselves up for successful future battles.
They should have let their ministers hire all the ministerial staff they needed, when they needed them, without the absurdly overdone Star Chamber process that stripped out anyone whoâ€™d offended the Premier or his factional entourage. When ministers do photo ops announcing policies that government agencies emphatically contradict, you know thereâ€™s a serious behind-the-scenes issue. When the state Treasurer complains to colleagues about Premierâ€™s office staff meddling in his budget, you know that they have taken centralisation too far. When one minister couldnâ€™t get up as a chief-of-staff someone who is allowed to be the deputy federal director of the Liberal party and then supposedly had four other well-credentialed nominees vetoed, you know that there is a power-mad, score-settling quality to decision-making at 1 Treasury Place that makes former Brumby COS Dan Oâ€™Brien look like a model of virtue, self-discipline and prudence. (Oâ€™Brien, by the way, is headed to the federal bureaucracy, in a senior regional development role working under Minister Simon Crean, which many think is even more punishment than he deserves for his role in the demise of the Brumby government)
BACK TO THE KENNETT
At the moment, nearly six months in, all is not well for the Baillieu brigade. They have plenty of time to turn it around but the passion to do so just doesnâ€™t seem to be there. Yet. Maybe it will come with time after a good Kennett pep-talk or something.They have neither the slickness of Bracks nor the rugged determination, bias for action and vision of Kennett. Maybe they aim to offend as few as possible by not doing a lot. But thatâ€™s very risky when youâ€™ve been elected pledging to â€œfix the problemsâ€ â€“ many of them intractable problems incapable of quick fixes.
The Libs have arrayed against them in state government the vested interests of those who deliver government services, in child protection, hospitals, schools, trains, trams. And thereâ€™s not a Liberal ally among them, even the AMA spokesman seems hostile and the unions in those sectors are not Tory friends either. And yet the government will rely on these chaps not to leak, not to undermine and not to publicly complain about government policies and errors. Itâ€™s why the â€œRoskam thesisâ€ (conservatives will tend to win more federal elections than they lose because the Commonwealthâ€™s responsibilities in national security, the economy and immigration are vote-winners for them but that Labor will tend to do better in state elections because it is principally responsible for service delivery) should drive a real sense of urgency and need to achieve great things in this government. They donâ€™t have a moment to lose. They need at least a sip of some partially watered-down Kennett Kool-Aid. Stat.
There a few of them capable of it. The softly-spoken intellectual power-house of the show, Attorney-General Robert Clark probably should be Treasurer although has a big job de-Hullsing the Justice Department, an important task on which he has embarked very promisingly. Matthew Guy is also promising although his sound pro-development, pro-jobs instincts may be undermined by meddlers from Baillieuâ€™s office. Peter Ryan is the stand-out, of course, only disqualified from being Premier because of the Coalition structure. Transport Minister Terry Mulder has surprised on the downside and Gordon Rich-Phillips the other way round, of him expectations were so low that he has stunningly exceeded them and should look for promotion. The rest, well, theyâ€™ve all been a bit flat.Almost disappointed to have won. The only one savouring it seems to be Ken Smith with his constant dubious delegations from China and his buffoonery as a highly partial speaker. The rest are either struggling with poisoned chalices or are just plain invisible.
The public will give Baillieu the benefit of the doubt for quite some time but the doubts are certainly now creeping in, much sooner in the political cycle than they should be and for that â€“ in no small part – he can thank scandal-plagued ministers Dalla-Riva, Davis and Speaker Smith. All three should go and the fact that Baillieu wonâ€™t punt any of them will continue to eat away at his leadership in a way that will take a while to register in the public mind, but will inevitably eventually occur unless they start emulating the can-do Kennett way, at least to some extent. The assumption they can coast by for a decade, forever falling short of their impossible promise to â€œfix the problemsâ€ in service delivery is just dead wrong. Donâ€™t take our word for it, ask John Roskam. And bring in Jeff Kennett for that pep-talk. Itâ€™s urgently needed.