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Adjournment: Labor’s shady deals compromise the community interest, Senate, 12 February 2020

As the patron Senator for Corangamite, Corio and Bendigo, amongst other federal electorates, I have some deep concerns about a number of very shabby deals executed by the Labor Party in my region, two of them in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election.

I have already spoken out about my concerns with the underhand deal which the state Labor government did with federal Labor in the lead-up to the election to fund stage 5 of Kardinia Park Stadium. The stadium is one of Geelong’s jewels in the crown—the home of the magnificent Geelong Cats and a wonderful sporting and entertainment asset for our region.

Whilst state Labor had committed $102 million to fully fund the final stage, the costs were bungled and it was underfunded. Rather than Premier Andrews honouring his commitment to fully fund the stadium, the board of the Kardinia Park Stadium Trust, chaired by Michael Malouf—and, I am told, at the direction of the responsible minister, Martin Pakula—approached federal Labor seeking a $20 million election commitment, which it announced just days before the election.

Such was the arrogance of state Labor, which thought the member for Maribyrnong had the election in the bag. I knew there was a funding issue but we were denied the business case or any details about the costings blowout. There was no request for an election commitment and now there is a cost blowout of some $35 million.

Now the Victorian government is seeking funding support. But I ask: why should taxpayers pick up the cost of the state government’s mismanagement? The construction of a 40,000-seat stadium must be prioritised and the Victorian government must deliver on its commitment to fully fund the final stage, as it promised to do. This is, after all, taxpayers’ money and I am acutely conscious that it has to be shared equitably and fairly throughout our community.

It was a very similar story with Anam Cara Geelong—which is distinct from Anam Cara Colac—which provides palliative care hospice services for cancer patients and which has done much wonderful work across our region, as has Anam Cara Colac.

In 2016, I secured an election commitment of $5 million so that Anam Cara could build a new 20-bed hospice for a total construction cost of $10 million. Much to my profound disappointment, the board of Anam Cara Geelong also entered into an underhand deal with federal Labor a few weeks before the 2019 federal election, keeping us in the dark. The board is chaired by Diana Taylor, who contested Labor Party preselection for the seat of Corangamite for the 2019 election, backed very heavily by Mr Shorten and the member for Corio, Mr Marles.

While she lost preselection, she certainly did not lose her appetite to put the Labor Party first at the expense of the community. In concert with Mr Marles, she engineered a shabby and secret deal to secure a $10 million election commitment from federal Labor whilst failing to share with our government the need for more funding. We were kept completely in the dark. She backed Mr Shorten too and the Geelong community has paid a very big price. Just to be clear: ordinarily, when an organisation seeks an election commitment, it approaches both sides of politics without fear or favour. This clearly did not happen in this case.

On 10 May 2019, I wrote to Ms Taylor shortly after Anam Cara had announced its election commitment with local MPs to much fanfare. I spoke about the project costing up to $18 million and how I had been assured that Anam Cara was in final negotiations with the state government to contribute $5 million to the cost of the project, with $8 million to be raised by way of private contributions. I said, ‘Mr Gartland advised that you were anticipating the state commitment prior to the 2018 state election,’ and, when this did not occur as soon as possible following the state election, I said, “In negotiating with the Labor Party to make a $10 million federal election commitment, which was announced some two weeks ago, Anam Cara Geelong has not only acted without good faith but has misled both myself and our government. At no stage did Anam Cara Geelong provide me or the government with information that your proposed funding model promised by the state government would not be forthcoming and that Anam Cara Geelong was seeking a further federal election commitment.” I never received a response to that letter.

In recent days I have also been very pleased to speak up as the patron senator for Bendigo on what appears to be another very shady Labor deal, this time between the City of Greater Bendigo and the state government, led all the way by Minister Jacinta Allan. The proposal to sell the council offices, situated on prime land in Bendigo’s CBD, to make way for a $90 million GovHub to be built and owned by the Victorian government, looks to be a very bad deal for the people of Bendigo.

Ratepayers will be forced to lease back office space in the GovHub and after 40 years will be left with no asset at all.

I have no issue at all with the construction of the GovHub but Minister Allan needs to find another location. The people of Bendigo should not pay the price. It is no different from being asked to sell your home at a cut price, leasing it back at full commercial rent and then, when the lease expires, being left with no home at all.

This is not happening in Ballarat, where a GovHub is being constructed on a greenfield site at no cost to Ballarat ratepayers. I’ve called for the sale of Bendigo’s council offices to be put on hold and for a full inquiry to be conducted. There must be complete transparency. PricewaterhouseCoopers assessed the options for council but this report has never been released. That’s because PwC recommended, I suspect, very strongly against this option. Mayor Margaret O’Rourke and her councillors need to understand that they serve the people of Bendigo and not the state government. This relationship with Jacinta Allan and state Labor looks, frankly, all too cosy. The councillors of the City of Greater Bendigo must safeguard ratepayer assets without fear or favour.

Unbelievably, council has done a deal without even receiving a valuation from the Valuer-General. Mayor O’Rourke told ABC Radio that council had done its due diligence, exploring seven options, but they have failed to release any of these details to the community. Many local residents, including local members of the Liberal Party, led by FEC chair Matthew Evans, are deeply concerned. I was very pleased to join with Matthew the other day in a media conference, speaking out about this issue.

This is a so-called done deal, but there are no details about the costs to ratepayers, the sale price, the lease costs, the windfall return we expect to the Victorian government or what will happen when the lease expires. This appears to be a very shabby, underhanded deal, and the people of Bendigo deserve full transparency and the complete truth.

12 February 2020

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