ANALYSIS: Four days before Michael Gunner resigned as chief minister, Robyn Lambley was itching to expose that he and his office were being investigated by the ICAC for alleged misappropriation of public funds related to campaign travel during the 2020 election.
The investigation was confirmed to her last week by Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Michael Riches, after she first referred the matter of alleged misuse of public funds involving the chief minister to him back in January.
She had asked him last Wednesday, point blank in an email: Are you investigating this matter? His response was succinct: “Yes.”
It wasn’t the most sexy scandal at first glance, especially considering the amount of graft and corruption the NT sees every day, but it was a solid one. And one that reaches not only the highest political office in the Northern Territory, but also directly into the highest office in the public service.
It wasn’t to the tune of $12 million – the Gunner Government’s favourite figure to carelessly toss around – but it was an amount of money people could understand.
Imagine being given $40,000 to travel with your friends and family, all paid for by taxpayers.
The NT Independent broke the travel rorts story last November, relying on documents released through Freedom of Information laws. What those internal documents showed was that Ryan Neve, then Gunner’s deputy chief of staff who was running the re-election campaign while collecting his public service salary, had approved roughly $40,000 in public money for trips that they claimed were “ministerial travel” but which other documents showed some had coincided with election polling days in remote communities in marginal seats.
There was no evidence in the documents that the trips were “ministerial travel” and on at least one occasion, more than $5,000 of public funds was used for a campaign photo op for an announcement that had already been made the week before caretaker mode. Other trips involved taxpayers picking up the tab for Mr Gunner’s advisers, family members and media.
The problem for Gunner and Neve was that the caretaker rules, that were set up to protect against the misuse of public funds, clearly state that taxpayer money cannot be used for party political purposes during an election campaign.
The records also showed that Chansey Paech had travelled with Gunner during his trips to his electorate at taxpayers expense, but he would not say at the time if he had paid that money back.
By last Friday morning, Robyn Lambley had made the decision to hold a press conference on Sunday afternoon to explain to Territorians that their chief minister and his office was under investigation for the alleged travel rorts. The media, the few who work on Sundays, are desperate for stories that day and it would have been given a good run.
Despite all other media in Darwin and the NT ignoring the massive story to this point, this was something they could not ignore: The Chief Minister under investigation by the anti-corruption body – that his own government created – for allegedly stealing public money with his politically-appointed brother-in-law to run a re-election campaign that just six months earlier in 2020 had him tipped to lose and lose badly.
Lambley was ready to reference Gladys Berejiklian and call for the chief minister to stand down while the ICAC investigation into him and his office took place.
But by early Saturday morning, the press conference was off.
Lambley had gone back to Riches to double check that she was safe in publicising the investigation.
He suggested that while he could not tell her what to do, he needed two weeks before she made it public.
Lambley agreed, assuming the time was needed to make further discreet inquiries before everything was brought out in the open. It is unclear now if that was the reason.
With the press conference cancelled, Lambley recalibrated her plan. She would wait, she had decided, in order to assist the ICAC, but would not wait two weeks. She would reveal it in Parliament during the second week of sittings during an adjournment speech in 10 days time.
But then, suddenly and without warning, as Gunner finished delivering the 2022 Budget speech on Tuesday morning, he announced his resignation, which he said was to spend more time with his family.
Gunner’s caucus not aware of resignation before it happened
To say Gunner’s resignation was a shock is a bit of an understatement. It wasn’t just a shock to the public, it came as a shock to the Labor parliamentary caucus.
It was clear that Gunner had made the decision to resign hastily. Proof of that is found in a couple of odd things the day of the announcement. Firstly, that he resigned after delivering a budget, which is unheard of in politics. If he had planned to resign, then his successor or someone else in the party would have been heavily involved in that budget, since they would be the one overseeing its aims and objectives over the next year.
The other issue is this. If Gunner had planned to leave on Budget Day, the party would have had his successor lined up. Nicole Manison would have been introduced at the press conference as the next Chief Minister, who the public would be informed was agreed on unanimously by caucus because she is so beloved by all her colleagues. If not her, then somebody else.
But that didn’t happen. And his resignation was effective immediately. He hasn’t been back to Parliament since.
Currently, the NT does not have a Chief Minister. And won’t until Friday at the earliest.
That creates uncertainty, in stark contrast to the many press conferences and lines by Labor pollies that this decision and that decision were done to “create certainty”.
The leader walking out suddenly and without notice is the opposite of creating certainty and shows nobody was ready for it. (Only Nicole Manison was told, Gunner would later say, and not even his own mother was aware he was resigning).
In the press conference following his sudden resignation, Gunner was asked if he was under investigation by the ICAC. Well, more precisely, he was asked if he was “told” he was under investigation by the ICAC. It was somewhat hard to hear the question with Gunner’s toddler allowed to run around screaming, presumably to drive home the narrative he was resigning to spend time with family.
But Gunner heard the re-worded question loud and clear. The question ‘is he under investigation’ would have caused him to shudder. But the phrasing of this one, made him smile.
“No, no, I can absolutely rule that out,” he replied, practically beaming with joy that the question was worded like that.
As Riches later told the NT Independent in an email, with his emphasis: “It is quite true that the Chief Minister has not been told that he is under investigation”.
It might seem like petty semantics to non-political people, but that small word made all the difference for Gunner who appeared to take it as whether the ICAC had “told” him.
Of course, Riches can only speak for his office when he says Gunner was not “told” of the investigation. But it stands to reason he would have been aware of the investigation by someone, and at the very least this publication had reported that Lambley and the CLP had referred the matter to the ICAC and Lambley had made that clear in Parliament in December when she read the NT Independent’s first story verbatim into the Parliamentary record.
It should also be pointed out that Gunner’s office and his department have for the last six months repeatedly refused to conduct an internal review of the documents that were released to the NT Independent after we complained that the cache was incomplete, including who had ordered the travel and the names of everyone, including all ministers, who had benefitted from the taxpayer-funded campaign trips.
Why did ICAC seek two-week delay in announcing the investigation?
Why did the ICAC need another two weeks before Lambley made the news public? That question is troubling at this point. If Lambley had gone out on Sunday as planned, would Gunner have still resigned or stayed on out of spite?
It certainly would have resulted in tears of a different kind on Tuesday when he finally resigned.
Was the delay to make discreet inquiries or was it something else? Maybe Riches, sensing the gravity of the matter and whatever preliminary issues had been raised may have needed the time to officially sign-off on and refer it to another body.
The ramifications of the investigation are huge and Lambley rightly points out that it goes to the heart of our democracy in the Northern Territory and Territorians deserve to know what is happening.
Not only does this implicate the highest political office in the NT, but also the highest office in the public service.
According to those caretaker guidelines for governments in election campaigns, the department and its chief executive Jodie Ryan are responsible for ensuring that public funds are not being used for party political purposes.
So, why did Gunner’s brother-in-law and then-deputy chief of staff approve the travel instead of the supposedly apolitical head bureaucrat?
Did Jodie Ryan know that using public funds to fly the chief minister to remote communities in marginal seats on polling days was a blatant misuse of taxpayer funds and is that why her fingerprints are nowhere to be found?
If an investigation into the possible misuse of public funds for Labor’s re-election campaign is thorough, it will inevitably lead into the Department of Chief Minister & Cabinet and straight to Ryan’s desk.
Did Riches, who started in the role last July and has so far produced nothing, really want to pursue the chief minister and the head public servant as one of his first cases?
He will have to now.
And whoever is selected as the new Chief Minister will also have to answer the question that this publication posed to every single member of caucus on December 6 last year:
“When did you become aware taxpayer funds were being used for campaigning and did you report it to ICAC as per your mandatory reporting obligations?”