Which minister? Parliament guessing game after corruption probe

Premier Peter Malinauskas and Opposition leader David Speirs both say they don’t believe that an unidentified minister who was the subject of an ICAC investigation into a “lucrative” contract referral is in the Labor or shadow cabinet.

Mar 08, 2023, updated Mar 08, 2023
Premier Peter Malinauskas, Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone and Opposition Leader David Speirs. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily, Image Tom Aldahn/InDaily

Premier Peter Malinauskas, Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone and Opposition Leader David Speirs. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily, Image Tom Aldahn/InDaily

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) revealed on Tuesday that it had completed an investigation into an allegation a “senior” male minister “used his position to arrange a lucrative contract between a personal associate in the private sector and the State Government”.

Titled Yes Minister and tabled in parliament yesterday, the nine-page report did not name the minister involved nor the government he served in.

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone KC wrote that there was “no direct evidence of corruption in this matter” but it was “appropriate that it was referred to me for investigation”.

According to ICAC, a business owner who had a private connection to the unnamed minister pitched a contract proposal to him.

The minister then referred the proposal, which ICAC said would have generated $3m in annual revenue for the business owner, to the agency’s CEO. It was subsequently rejected.

“The business owner had a private connection with the Minister and used it to open doors to decision makers within government,” Vanstone wrote in a foreword to the report.

“While the Minister did not make any promises to the business owner about the proposal, he did refer it to the relevant Chief Executive in his portfolio.”

According to ICAC, the business proposal would have required more than 10,000 registered users of a free government service to purchase an ongoing membership from the business.

Vanstone wrote that there was “no evidence to suggest” the minister’s referral came with expectations the proposal would be progressed by the agency’s CEO.

“Indeed, [the minister] may have presumed it would be given due consideration and discarded,” she said.

“What is clear is that when unsolicited proposals make their way from the private sector to Ministers through personal contacts there is the potential for preferential treatment, or at least the perception of preferential treatment.”

According to ICAC, the state government subsequently struck a separate deal with the same business owner to purchase a product worth $50,000.

Vanstone said she was “curious as to what might have motivated” this subsequent deal.

“The sequence of events could suggest this could have been a consolation of sorts, against the failure of the first proposal,” Vanstone wrote.

“Despite there being no direct evidence of corruption in the matter, it was appropriate that it was referred to me for investigation.

“It highlights the inherent corruption risks where individuals use connections with Ministers for their own personal benefit or commercial advantage.

“While it is reasonable that members of the public engage with Ministers for the purpose of raising matters of interest or to advocate for government action, Ministers need to be aware of their vulnerability in this regard.”

Premier Peter Malinauskas said this morning that after receiving Crown Law advice he had contacted all ministers in his cabinet to ask whether they were the subject of the investigation.

“I’m in a position where I can say that I have no reason to believe, in fact, I do believe that this does not relate to any ministers within my government,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Malinauskas, who also said he was not the subject of the report, met with Vanstone on Monday to “directly” ask whether one of his ministers was the subject of the investigation.

“She declined to answer that question,” he said.

“I asked her whether she could advise me whether or not this was related to a minister within my government, and she said that she would not be in a position to answer that question.”

Asked if he would sack a minister if they were subject to this investigation, Malinauskas responded: “If they’d done something wrong, but again, there’s not really any clear finding.”

“This isn’t my government… so arguably it’s in my political interest to suggest there’s extraordinary wrongdoing here that demands substantial action from whatever government this affected.

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“Except for the fact that on any objective reading of the report, the ICAC commissioner does not find any specific wrongdoing here as best as I can read it.”

Opposition leader David Speirs also told ABC Radio today that he was not the subject of the investigation.

Asked if it was any member of his shadow ministry or backbench, Speirs said: “I don’t believe so.”

“But of course, I haven’t been privy to the Crown advice that the Premier has,” he said.

“So, I haven’t posed such specific questions to people as the Premier might have done to his colleagues.

“It’s also quite difficult for me to reach some of my colleagues who’ve served in government before because some of them were defeated at the last election, some have retired since then.”

He said there were only five former Marshall Government ministers in his shadow cabinet, “so, [it’s] a little trickier for me to do those investigations, and I also don’t want to break the law of asking questions when I shouldn’t”.

Asked whether the public should be concerned about the findings of the ICAC report, Speirs said: “I think people should be reasonably concerned.”

“I guess it comes down to what the individual relationship was like between the proponent and the minister.

“There might have been a feeling from the minister, ‘well, I better just elevate this to another place to have a second set of eyes being the chief executive of the department or their probity officers.”

Both Speirs and Malinauskas highlighted that the ICAC report contained no formal recommendations.

Speirs said it was “the shortest report I’ve seen out of the ICAC in my time in parliament”.

“It doesn’t give us a lot to work with,” he said.

What it does create is a bit of a vacuum in which both politicians and journalists can speculate a lot but not actually draw very many clear conclusions, apart from we might need to tidy up some things in the code of conduct to draw ministers’ attention to this in the future.

The number of corruption investigations commenced by ICAC in the 2021-22 financial year increased from 30 to 50.

In 2022, it published investigation reports detailing “subsidy manipulation” by a government contractor engaged by the Department for Innovation and Skills, which cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as “misuse” of employee travel cards within the Department for Infrastructure and Transport.

In January, Vanstone announced ICAC would be launching an evaluation of grants administration by a number of public authorities.

A report is expected to be delivered to state parliament by the end of the year.

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