A second minister has confirmed Chief Minister Michael Gunner rushed the $12 million Darwin Turf Club grandstand grant through Cabinet himself and that the senior public servant who failed to warn Cabinet of the submission’s lack of details is now in charge of implementing the ICAC’s recommendations.
Racing Minister Natasha Fyles told ABC Radio this morning that Mr Gunner had brought the submission to Cabinet to be approved in June 2019, ‘under the arm’, confirming claims from Infrastructure Minister Eva Lawler last week.
She also revealed that Shaun Drabsch, the senior bureaucrat the ICAC found engaged in “deceptive” conduct around the grandstand grant has now been put in charge of implementing the ICAC’s recommendations to improve government grant processes.
Ms Fyles echoed claims that the grandstand grant was approved to create jobs, although she was not asked if she had personally supported it.
“It’s not uncommon to provide grants to sporting organisations,” she told ABC.
However, this particular grant application – that had not been analysed by department staff and had only been written a day earlier by Turf Club chairman Brett Dixon – did not sit on the Cabinet agenda in accordance with standard protocol and was instead “taken under the arm” into the Cabinet room for approval by Mr Gunner.
Mr Gunner last week repeatedly refused to confirm he was the minister who took the application to Cabinet, stating in a commercial radio interview that he is “responsible for everything at Cabinet”.
The ICAC’s damning report into the scandal found that the process was “deeply flawed and affected by political donations” and that Mr Gunner’s former chief of staff Alf Leonardi had approached Darwin Turf Club chair Brett Dixon ahead of the 2016 NT election about increasing annual funding to the racing industry if Labor was elected.
In July of 2016, two donations of $50,000 were made to the NT Labor Party through different companies co-owned by Mr Dixon that were later updated during the ICAC’s investigation last year. In 2017, the Gunner Government entered into a five-year funding agreement with the racing industry.
In June 2019, Mr Gunner took a hastily produced grant application that the ICAC found contained “ill-informed and spurious” claims about the economic benefits of a new grandstand written by Mr Dixon to Cabinet for approval before it had been scrutinised.
The Turf Club later awarded the $12 million construction contract to Mr Dixon’s company Jaytex.
Chief executive who failed to inform Cabinet of bogus Turf Club submission now implementing ICAC recommendations for Gunner Government
The ICAC report also found that Mr Leonardi and Shaun Drabsch, chief executive of the Department of Trade, Business and Innovation, had engaged in a “duplicitous process” to make the grant application appear that it was also being considered as a market-led proposal when it was not.
However, despite calling for Mr Leonardi’s resignation, Mr Gunner has taken no action against Mr Drabsch, who the ICAC also found failed to “warn” Cabinet that the Turf Club’s submission had not been scrutinised.
Ms Fyles defended Mr Drabsch against the ICAC’s findings that he engaged in “deceptive” conduct to get the submission approved, saying he had “worked incredibly hard” during the COVID-19 pandemic for businesses.
She then stated that the Gunner Government has tasked Mr Drabsch with enacting recommendations made by the ICAC late last month to improve government processes, despite Mr Drabsch’s previous “deceptive” conduct around the Turf Club proposal.
“He’s been working to implement those and provide that advice to government,” she said.
“But yes, we have confidence in him.”
ICAC Ken Fleming found that Mr Drabsch had a responsibility to inform Cabinet he had not scrutinised the grant application having only received it the day before the Cabinet meeting.
“My concern remains that DTBI, Mr Drabsch having stated that there was no realistic opportunity to provide a formal analysis of the (Darwin Turf Club) submission, should have warned of that fact and cautioned Cabinet to investigate the matter further,” Mr Fleming wrote.
Mr Fleming gave 18 recommendations to improve government processes, which are now apparently being implemented by Mr Drabsch, including, ironically, reviewing a policy for the disclosure of gifts for staff in the Department of Trade, Industry and Innovation.
Mr Drabsch has refused to respond to a question about whether he had declared all hospitality provided to him by Mr Dixon and the Turf Club, which the NT Independent has learned included tickets to events valued between $500 and $900.
Mr Gunner’s office did not respond to a question about why a public servant who had been found to have acted deceptively and who had failed to properly inform Cabinet about the grant submission was now implementing recommendations and giving advice to government about improved processes.
It also remains unclear why Mr Gunner rushed the grant proposal through Cabinet outside of established processes and without verifiable figures.
“This is a government asleep at the wheel, their governance processes are completely shot and the Chief Minister is deceiving Territorians to save his own skin,” Opposition CLP Leader Lia Finocchiaro said.
“Now we’re starting to see his Cabinet ministers fight back and throw him under the bus. He talks a lot about taking responsibility but he wouldn’t know the meaning of the word.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a leadership spill sooner than later.”