Sorting out fact from fiction when dealing with governments

IN May 2010 a staff member for the then NSW Planning Minister Tony Kelly sent an email to another Kelly staffer, and cc-ed in a further six people.

Just looking at the email this week I recognised two of the six as Kelly staffers I used to have to deal with from time to time.

The email is headed “Cessnock Council corro”. Corro is short for correspondence. It might have been shortened because things were so busy in Kelly’s office that his oodles of staff didn’t have time to type out whole words. Or maybe the staffer couldn’t spell correspondence. Another unsolved mystery for the ages.

Anyway, the email was written because I’d asked questions about public comments made by Kelly’s office about Cessnock City Council that I thought were a bit over the top. The council was certainly colourful. A director left after sexual harassment allegations. Senior council representatives had too-close associations with a dodgy Chinese construction company, and rangers allegedly staked out public toilets looking for who knows what. In other words, Cessnock Council exhibited the usual grab-bag of stuff some colourful councils can find themselves dealing with. 

But Kelly and Co seemed to have a bit of a thing about Cessnock.

I’m writing about the email, obtained under freedom of information legislation a few years ago, after news that the NSW Government is spending up to $5 million a year more on political staffers than it did when it came to power. By the end of June the government’s total political staff bill was up to $31 million.

In the 2010 email the staffer notes that “we” have been quoted saying “More than half of all complaints received by our office relates to Cessnock Council” and “the journo wants details”.

It went a bit downhill from there. The quickest way to rattle governments is to try to talk to them about climate change, same sex marriage or chooks, I’ve found, which is why it’s fun to do it from time to time.

He noted that he’d advised me privacy prevented him giving details but “she asked for the number of complaints”. You can almost hear the sigh from him as he typed those words. Couldn’t a government minister make a public statement without some bloody journalist ringing up and checking its accuracy?

My favourite part of the email comes next: “Do we know how many complaints we have received since taking office late last year and how many exactly relate to Cessnock? Would be fantastic info to have, regardless.”

In other words they’d been throwing that claim around for who knows how long based on no facts whatsoever, until they were asked to verify it. The staffer outed the lot of them for being in on what appeared to be standard operating procedure – churning out a factually baseless statement when it suited. And how cool to, you know, get some actual figures before shooting off about something in public?  

One of my all-time favourite stories as a journalist – which I have written about before but which deserves a run from time to time because it features chooks – also features Tony Kelly and poor old Cessnock.

Chookgate started with another wild claim from the minister, emails with his staff, and some heated exchanges between me and one of his staffers.

Kelly was banging on about Cessnock again when he spoke about the man from Cessnock who’d complained to Kelly’s office because he “couldn’t even have a chook”, based on some unstated, but draconian, anti-chook law applying in the local government area.

Now I knew Cessnock could be a bit odd at times, and certainly colourful, but I didn’t picture it as chook-phobic or chookist. I emailed Kelly’s office for more information and a staffer emailed back that a farmer had told Kelly’s office that under Cessnock’s draft LEP, “such an application would not be allowed.

I emailed back. What was meant by “such an application”. For what? To own a chook?

It went a bit downhill from there. The quickest way to rattle governments is to try to talk to them about climate change, same sex marriage or chooks, I’ve found, which is why it’s fun to do it from time to time.

Eventually I rang the council, which didn’t know what the hell Kelly’s office was talking about. Chooks were welcome in Cessnock, I was told. Good to know. It’s a sorry day when public institutions turn on chooks.

I have no idea what it would have been like working in Tony Kelly’s office, but by December the following year the Independent Commission Against Corruption found he’d engaged in corrupt conduct by backdating a letter to mislead investigators and give the impression a very controversial property sale had ministerial approval.

By that stage Kelly was also being investigated by ICAC over the Australian Water Holdings affair, and his role in a 2010 Cabinet minute favouring a company linked to the family of disgraced former NSW Labor Minister Eddie Obeid.

In early August ICAC released the findings of the three year investigation and hit Kelly, Obeid and former NSW Labor Minister Joe Tripodi with fresh corruption findings. It also made corruption findings against Kelly’s chief of staff, Laurie Brown.

ICAC found Kelly “knowingly and improperly acted” when he signed off on the Cabinet minute, despite Kelly denying that he “wilfully turned a blind eye” to mistakes in the document.

A Fairfax Media investigation of political staff numbers in the NSW Government found 35 staffers are in the top salary band of between $150,000 and $300,000, which is nine more than in the final year of the preceding Labor government.

They’re paid by the public purse, of course.

If these highly paid layers of protection between elected politicians and the community always worked in the public interest, it mightn’t be so hard to take. But all too often the political nature of these roles is apparent to journalists trying to sort out fact from political fiction, even if the subject is a ridiculous statement about chooks.

This story The chooks don’t lie first appeared on Newcastle Herald.