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Primary Industries – THA Lobbying

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 26 November 2020

Tags: Tasmanian Hospitality Association, COVID-19, Biosecurity

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I want to take you back to June this year. This is a question that relates to Biosecurity, when the head of the Tasmanian Hospitality Association, Mr Steve Old, contacted the secretary of your department seeking assistance to enable the executive for Tourism and Hospitality Services AustralAsia, Mr Rodger Powell, to have an essential workers' exemption in order to attend the opening of the Crowne Plaza. Are you able to explain how an executive for a national hotel lobby organisation can be granted essential traveller status and therefore be exempt from isolation to attend a hotel opening of, it must be said, a hotel that is owned by Liberal donors?

Mr BARNETT - Thank you very much for the question. You have raised a number of concerns in your letter, and made a number of allegations as well.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I didn't. I have just asked a question. Making allegations.

Mr BARNETT - I am just making an observation in response to that.

Ms O'CONNOR - The Kalis Group are Liberal donors. That is not an allegation. That is a fact.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, can you allow the minister to respond.

Mr BARNETT - It is best, in this instance, that I refer this matter to the secretary to respond to, noting the importance of following the process, following the guidelines, following the rules, as the Premier has made very clear many times and many occasions. I thank him for his decisive leadership during this difficult time of the COVID 19 pandemic.

Ms O'CONNOR - This was a request from Mr Old for the rules to be gotten around.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, can you allow the minister to finish, please.

Mr BARNETT - With respect to other specific details of your question, I will pass to the secretary.

Mr BAKER - Thank you, Ms O'Connor, for the opportunity for me to correct the record in the public domain.

As I indicated at the time, Mr Old emailed me on 24 June, asking for some help in relation to the essential traveller application. He was asking me to check on where an application was at. I replied to that email on 25 June to let Mr Old know that I would follow it up. On 25 June I forwarded Mr Old's email to the manager responsible for essential travellers in DPIPWE. That manager got back to me to inform me that it had already been approved.

Ms O'CONNOR - A very quick turnaround.

Mr BAKER - I received a second email from Mr Old on 26 June, thanking me. I didn't discuss the matter with anyone other than the relevant manager. I didn't discuss the matter with the State Controller or anyone inside the State Control Centre, and I didn't discuss the matter with the minister, or any of his ministerial staff.

In addition to that, Ms O'Connor, the matter was referred to the Integrity Commission, which you may or may not be aware of, and the outcome has now come through. The Integrity Commissioner has written to me. I am happy to table this letter with the minister's permission on the public record, in which he says -

It is apparent that you had no role in the process for Crowne Plaza workers, and did not seek to influence any outcome.

We confirm, that is on the public record, you forwarded Mr Powell's application sent from Mr Old, to the relevant DPIPWE staff. However, by that stage Mr Powell's application had already been assessed and a recommendation was approved.

While communication between Mr Old and yourself has generated a perception that you had pre-existing relationship was a factor -

Ms O'CONNOR - Your mate. That is what is in the email - mate.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Mr BAKER - To be clear, Ms O'Connor, the Integrity Commission, in the letter which I have in front of me which I am going to table, clearly says that is not the case, so with the minister's permission I am happy to table the letter.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, secretary. The question I asked, which unfortunately I am going to have to restate, which eats into my quota of questions, was how can it be that an executive for the Tourism and Hospitality Services Association of Australasia, Mr Rodger Powell, on having his case for exemption advanced by Steve Old, the head of the Tasmanian Hospitality Association, another massive Liberal donor and supporter, can be so quickly given an essential traveller exemption to come down here for a party at the Crowne Plaza?

Mr BARNETT - Thank you for the question. Let's be very clear that there has been a process in place for a long time, and as the secretary has outlined, the decision ultimately is one for the State Controller. The Premier has made this clear and it is on the public record. Tasmania relies on skills, talents, goods and services from interstate and essential travellers -

Ms O'CONNOR - This was a lobbyist.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, I don't want to have to start issuing you warnings. I understand you want to get to the bottom of it but please wait to ask one more question when the minister has responded.

Mr BARNETT - It is important for Ms O'Connor and everybody to be very aware that there is a process in place and you must follow the process. There is a due process and the ultimate decision is one for the State Controller. There are many applications for essential traveller status that have to be considered by the State Controller and his team. The description and the outline of the process from the secretary is quite clear to the committee. The secretary has now tabled an Integrity Commission document which outlines the views of the Integrity Commission and that is useful to have on the public record.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, the essence of the question wasn't answered, which is how can it be that a national industry lobbyist can be granted essential traveller status? You haven't gone near that. I note that. I also point to a file note we received following our right to information request which revealed the at face value quite close relationship between the secretary of DPIPWE and the head of the Tasmanian Hospitality Association. This is some of the email conversation. 'Hey mate, any help you can offer with this?', says Mr Old. Mr Baker says, 'Yep, I'll look into it', and then Mr Old goes, 'Ta, mate', so I just note that. The file note we received under active disclosure - very rare to receive anything under active disclosure - from Mr Baker is undated. I was wondering if there is a reason it is undated and perhaps the secretary could place on the record what date that file note was made.

Mr BARNETT - In response to that question, I will make it very clear and say again that we have a process in place. The State Controller makes that decision and it is good that from time to time and as appropriate the decision is made by the State Controller. Ultimately that is where the decision is made and decisions can be made as swiftly as possible and that is appropriate in the circumstances. That is understandable if they are essential travellers -

Ms O'CONNOR - Especially for people who are connected to Liberal donors.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor.

Mr BARNETT - critical to the ongoing operation of our economy and our community here in Tasmania. The secretary would like to add to that answer.

Mr BAKER - I reiterate again that Michael Easton said in a letter, 'There is no evidence of misconduct by you in relation to Mr Powell's application or any other application for Crowne Plaza workers'. The file note I wrote was written immediately following the media attention that was given to this and that is standard for public servants to write file notes.


Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, regrettably I actually did not get an answer to the question that I asked before so we are going to have to go over it. Why is an executive for Tourism and Hospitality Services AustralAsia regarded as an essential traveller?

Mr BARNETT - Thank you very much for the question. I think in your opening remarks to that question you made a statement that you did not get the answer that you wanted. An answer has been provided for the Hansard records and the public record.

Ms O'CONNOR - You never said why.

Mr BARNETT - It is clearly not an answer that you wanted.

Ms O'CONNOR - What we want is the truth.

CHAIR -Ms O'Connor, I do ask you not to interrupt the minister.

Mr BARNETT - That is a matter for the public record. I believe the answer has been provided by the secretary. I have made it very clear that there is a very important process in place for essential travellers. The ultimate decision-maker is the State Controller. I will check if the secretary wishes to add anything.

Mr BAKER - The only thing I would add is that I understand the State Controller gave a lengthy answer in relation to this in the Public Accounts Committee but the decision was not made by - certainly not by me and certainly not by my department.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. Minister, neither you nor your secretary have been able to explain how a lobbyist for an organisation, which has amongst its member bodies a Liberal donor group, can be regarded as an essential traveller. I place that on the record - you haven't explained that.

I also want to ask about this file note which appeared after our Right to Information request which revealed the 'mate, mate, mate' exchange. When I asked Mr Baker before what date the file note was made, he only said it was made after the media attention. My question is what date exactly was the file note made? Has the secretary ever written a similar file note before? And why was the file note written?

Mr BARNETT - Before I pass to the secretary, to be very clear, the member has surmised her own views of what the secretary has said and what I've said as minister and I dispute that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Clarify it.

Mr BARNETT - I'm making it very clear that our answers are on the public record; we've answered it many times. I'm happy to respond again to the question by the member and to make it very clear that there's a process in place. We follow the process and the decision-making ultimately is with the State Controller. You've obviously referred to a consultant who has been performing those necessary roles associated with that position and the building sign-off. That's my understanding but -

Ms O'CONNOR - Why was it necessary?

Mr BARNETT - It was for the building sign-off, that is my understanding. The secretary might wish to add to that answer.

Mr BAKER - Ms O'Connor, right in front of me I don't have a date but, I'm happy to go away and see when I wrote it. I can tell you I've written many file notes over my public service career - many. It is a standard practice for public servants, as any public servant sitting at this table would tell you. You asked a specific question about why I wrote this. I wrote this because in response to media attention to this issue which was misrepresenting the facts which, quite frankly, has been verified in the letter from the Integrity Commission, which I tabled.

CHAIR - Last question, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - I gather that the secretary sat down at his computer and wrote the file note on his own. The concern that we have is that there's evidence, at least in the Right to Information, of a close relationship between the head of the Tasmanian Hospitality Association, who is closely connected to the Liberal Party who would have worked closely with the secretary in his previous job as chief of staff to the then-premier. I'm interested in untangling the relationship between the head of the Tasmanian Hospitality Association and the current secretary of DPIPWE. At least, at face value, minister, it looks like it's a very close relationship and, at face value, it looks like it bore fruit.

Mr BARNETT - Thanks very much for the question. To make it clear again, I'm not concurring with the views of the Leader for the Greens in her summary of the evidence and her assessment of the matter. I have made clear that there is a process, it must be followed. The ultimate decision-maker is the State Controller.

The secretary has set out the position that is deemed accurate from the secretary's point of view. He has also tabled an Integrity Commission letter that has made very clear the views of the Integrity Commissioner. It's very comprehensive in that response but I understand the secretary would like to add to that answer.

Mr BAKER - I will deal with the multiple questions in reverse order. The comment in relation to 'bore fruit,' these are not my words, they are Michael Easton's words. It is apparent that you, and I, had no role in the process for the Crowne Plaza workers and did not seek to influence any outcomes. So I think that statement is false. That's clearly indicated in the letter from the Integrity Commissioner. In relation to -

Ms O'CONNOR - Steve Old clearly thought it could get some fruit.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, Mr Ellis will have the call next.

Ms O'CONNOR - Mr Baker wanted to answer a series of points that were made.

CHAIR - Mr Baker, have you finished?

Mr BAKER - I'm happy to make one more point, Chair, and that is that a suggestion that I have a close relationship with Mr Old is completely incorrect.

Ms O'CONNOR - So you are not mates?

Mr BAKER - No. I know Mr Old but I have had very little professional dealings with him and very few social dealings with him.