NSW Treasurer being white-anted

Aug 21, 2020

Two weeks ago Dominic Perrottet was set to take an elevator ride to the Premiership. Now he’s assailed on all sides by the icare workers’ compensation scandal.

The minders, influencers and PR flaks are deciding whether he should apologise or set up an internal review to find the person responsible, i.e. a scapegoat. No thanks, how about a royal commission?

Ever since it returned to power in 2010, the Coalition Government has been desperate to get its hands on the State’s workers’ compensation scheme. Initially called WorkCover, it was created by Premier Nick Greiner’s Liberal government in 1989. It was the equivalent of chucking a piece of red meat to savage dogs from the hard right of big business. They’d been cursing publicly-owned workers’ comp. for decades and now they wanted action.

The job of decimating the scheme fell to Liberal Premiers Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian when the scandal-ridden Labor Government was swept from office in March 2011.

On 1 September 2015, WorkCover NSW was wiped off the legislative map and replaced by Insurance and Care NSW (icare). Try to find a copy of Labor Attorney-General Jeff Shaw’s 1998 Workers Compensation Amendment Bill 1998 on the Parliament House website, and it says: “Not available at this stage.” Try to find the transcript of Labor, Liberal, National, Green or independent speeches made in the Legislative Assembly or the Legislative Council and the site says: “Not available at this stage.”

Whereas the former workers’ comp board was made up of trade union, legal, medical, community and technical experts, icare’s current board of directors is listed as Michael Carapiet (chairman), David Plumb, Elizabeth Carr, Gavin Bell, Lisa McIntyre, Peeyush Gupta and Christine Bartlett. Heard of any of them? No, neither have I. All share a common characteristic: they are from the business community and all of them were handpicked by Treasurer Dominic Perrottet.

The icare website states: “The Board is accountable to the Hon. Dominic Perrottet MP, NSW Treasurer.” In other words, he picks the board and the board is responsible to him. It seems like a closed shop. (I thought closed shops were banned?) So where is the accountability and transparency?

The problems with icare were revealed in July in a special investigation by award-winning finance journalist Adele Ferguson for the ABC’s Four Corners together with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Journalist, activist and professor Wendy Bacon has also laid bare glaring anomalies in icare’s scandalous conduct, with support from investigative business journalist Michael West and his team,

· John Nagle, icare’s CEO, failed to properly declare that his wife, at one time an icare employee, had been given a contract with icare without going to tender.

· Two days after the story broke, Nagle resigned. Then Perrottet’s chief of staff Nigel Freitas resigned after it was revealed that icare was paying the salaries of two members of Perrottet’s staff.

· The two senior staffers drawing salaries from icare were American right-wing activist Edward Yap, who has been lurking on icare’s payroll since August 2017, and an “administrative assistant”, so far unnamed and unidentified. Someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend? American or Australian?

Greens MP David Shoebridge, a barrister, said: “Every single cent that went to pay for the Treasurer’s two icare staff was money that was diverted from helping injured workers.

“This was more than a conflict of interest. This was the Treasurer taking money from injured workers to pay for political staffers.

NSW Opposition leader Jodi McKay has called on Premier Berejiklian to stand aside Treasurer Perrottet and launch an icare investigation. “The Premier must show leadership,” Ms McKay said. “Gladys Berejiklian cannot ignore this crisis.”

Really? She can “ignore” it, and she will ignore it if she can get away with it. Ms McKay’s grandstanding will only help Ms Berejiklian and Mr Perrottet to escape blame and responsibility unless there is a full royal commission and charges are brought.

With imperious cynicism, Ms Berejiklian has picked Treasury secretary Mike Pratt, former NAB and Westpac banker and a former deputy chair of icare, to conduct an audit of icare, while she has expressed “full confidence” in Treasurer Perrottet. Who wants icare audited? Workers neglected of compo and care don’t want an audit, they are demanding criminal action against those responsible for abusing funds and their statutory obligations.

The administration of workers’ compensation is a public function that should rest in the hands of a publicly-funded, wholly independent board of experts. The moment the Liberals privatised its function and threw it into the arms of Liberal hacks and hackettes its doom was signalled. Will we repeat the farce of the Ruby Princess investigation which found that no one at all was to blame for Australia’s worst COVID-19 outbreak – not Health NSW, the AFP, Australian Border Force, Commonwealth Health, Peter Dutton, or Ivan Milat; rather, the only person blamed for anything was ABC journalist Andrew Probyn!

Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book is Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe, available here.

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