Premier Daniel Andrews’ appointment of new Planning Minister Lizzie Blandthorn has raised conflict-of-interest questions due to her lobbyist brother representing major development, construction and infrastructure clients.
In an appointment that has unsettled some senior government and Labor insiders, the premier named Pascoe Vale MP Blandthorn to the sensitive planning role. Her brother, John-Paul Blandthorn, heads up the prominent Labor-linked lobbying firm Hawker Britton. Blandthorn is also a former senior adviser to the premier.
Among Hawker Britton’s clients are big development, construction and infrastructure names including developers Mirvac, the Dennis Family Corporation, Intrapac and Caydon, construction giant John Holland in its role building the West Gate Tunnel, builder Winslow Group, Melbourne Airport, McDonald’s and the Shopping Centre Council.
On Tuesday, neither the government nor Blandthorn ruled out the possibility he would represent his clients to his sister, including in face-to-face meetings.
Integrity experts say the Blandthorn appointment highlights major weaknesses in Victoria’s outdated rules around lobbying and the revolving door of political insiders who move between working in government and for businesses seeking favourable decisions from the government.
The Age is not suggesting there has been, or will be, any impropriety between the Blandthorn siblings, only that Blandthorn’s appointment raises a potential conflict of interest.
Lobbying industry figures expect Hawker Britton to be swamped with new clients seeking access to the minister.
Strategic and one-off ministerial planning decisions including the rezoning of land, planning permits and environmental impact approvals can be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars – or more – to such companies.
On Monday, Blandthorn wrote to Public Sector Commissioner Adam Fennessy, who administers the Victorian register of lobbyists, outlining voluntary precautions he would take to resolve a “potential conflict of interest”.
He said he would ensure contact with his sister relating to her portfolio would be done in the presence of an independent person appointed by the department; seek to meet the minister’s staff rather than the minister herself, where possible; and keep a log of meetings with the minister’s office that could be reviewed by the commissioner on request.
He said: “Whilst the above-mentioned protocols go above and beyond what is required under the lobbyist code of conduct, we believe it is in the best interest of Hawker Britton clients and seeks to uphold a higher standard of integrity between our firm and the Victorian government.”
The appointment of Blandthorn is one of several changes to the Andrews government frontbench after a string of ministers announced retirement plans last week.
New Multicultural Affairs Minister Ros Spence is the wife of high-profile lobbyist, political researcher and commentator and former Labor deputy campaign director Kosmos Samaras, who is a director of the RedBridge Group.
Samaras told The Age he had ensured none of his RedBridge clients had interests in his wife’s portfolio. “There is strict adherence that we can’t take on any clients that have any interests in the minister’s portfolio areas or who are in receipt of any money,” he said.
Centre for Public Integrity research director Dr Catherine Williams said the Blandthorn situation was a case study in the weakness of Victorian regulation of lobbying and government-business relationships.
“While all the dealings between these parties [the Blandthorns] may well be above board and rules followed, with such inadequate rules and with so little transparency, it is hard for the community to have confidence that all is OK,” she said.
She said Blandthorn’s letter to the public sector commissioner was “an important recognition of the potential for a conflict of interest”, but it was only a personal undertaking that came with no official oversight and/or public transparency. “This really highlights the flaws in the system.”
The Brumby government introduced a lobbyist code and register in 2009, but it has long been regarded as ineffectual. The only penalty for contravention of the code is the loss of a lobbyist’s registration. Even then, there is no public record of such deregistrations.
Unlike more strongly regulated jurisdictions such as NSW and Queensland, Victoria’s lobbying rules are not enshrined in legislation and are similar to the federal rules, which, in 2020, the Australian National Audit Office labelled a “light-touch approach”.
And, unlike NSW, Queensland and the ACT, Victorian ministers are not required to keep public diaries of meetings and contacts with lobbyists. In those jurisdictions, a meeting between siblings – one a lobbyist and a minister – would be documented on the public record.
Victoria also lags other jurisdictions on the length of the “cooling-off” period for outgoing MPs and other government figures before they take up positions lobbying to government. In Victoria, the period is 12 to 18 months, compared with five years in Canada.
Monash University associate professor Yee-Fui Ng is a leading researcher on lobbying regulation. She said the Blandthorn appointment appeared to be a “massive conflict of interest”.
She said Victoria’s regulation of lobbying was weak compared with NSW, Queensland and overseas jurisdictions such as Canada and the US, and that more robust regulation would require reforms including “vigilant enforcement by an independent statutory authority”.
Blandthorn worked as a senior “stakeholder relations” adviser to Andrews for 2½ years to July 2017. He became director at Hawker Britton in August 2018. Before working for Andrews, Blandthorn worked in the office of then-federal opposition leader Bill Shorten. The Blandthorn family is a powerful force in Victorian Labor Right politics, long associated with the socially conservative “shoppies” union.
When questioned, Fennessy, the public sector commissioner, referred The Age to the Department of Premier and Cabinet, which has responsibility for the lobbyist code of conduct.
On Tuesday, a state government spokeswoman said: “All ministers are expected to act with integrity as they manage their portfolios to deliver the best outcomes for Victorians.”
The spokeswoman said departmental secretaries and the public sector commissioner were developing a “robust management plan” to ensure the independence of Blandthorn’s decision-making. The government provided no detail about that plan.
The state opposition was approached for comment.
Write by Royce Millar. Originally published in the Age on June 29 2022.