The Bracks government should have sent in the cops to recover a missing state-owned portrait of Sir Henry Bolte. Instead, they let Jeff Kennett off the hook when seriuos questions remain unanswered.
It has been an interesting week in Victorian politics with Parliament resuming for the first time this Millenium. Premier Steve Bracks received a huge free kick with the revelation that Jeff Kennett took off with a $50,000 portrait of Sir Henry Bolte that belonged to the National Gallery of Victoria.

In an era when a Liberal government is jailing young Aborigines for stealing a packet of biscuits, it was remarkable that the police weren’t called in to at least chat to Jeff.

Just how did this state asset finish up in the $300,000 Packer wing of Jeff’s Surrey Hills home. Afterall, there is television footage of him explaining to a group of school children that the portrait was found deep in the bowels of the NGV.

If that is so, how he can he claim to have “vivid” memories of a woman giving him the painting. Who is this woman and why wasn’t he explaining that to the school children in his office.

NGV staff have explained that Jeff personally inspected the works before they were placed in his private office. His former chief of staff John Griffin signed for the portrait twice. Griffo is a nice guy but a real yes man so he would have just been carrying out his master’s instructions. So far, Griffo has refused to comment on the whole affair and now Jeff has gone to ground.

NGV REPORT DEEPENS THE MYSTERY

The NGV released their quickfire report into the missing portrait just four days after Arts Minister Mary Delahunty ordered an investigation. Gallery director Dr Gerard Vaughan talks of it being lent to Jeff in unusual circumstances but failed to adequately explain what these were.

“The demand for additional works, which was made to the then director, Dr Timothy Potts, came with very little notice and there was an expectation of immediate response,” the report said.

“An indication of the urgency of the situation is that the loan agreement and receipt were signed simultaneously by the then chief of staff of the Premier’s office, Dr John Griffin.” Dr Potts verbally gave the go ahead on the understanding that ratification from trustees, which include Ron Walker, would be made later.

The portrait was handed over by a group of Sir Henry’s friends in 1971 but was “never formally accessioned”, meaning it was not labelled like other NGV works. When Jeff took it in 1996 it was labelled as a “found item” but the ownership status was unresolved.

NO DECLARATION ON REGISTER OF INTERESTS

Steve Bracks is right to point out that if it was a gift it should have been lodged on his register of pecuniary interests which requires everything above $500 to be declared. But Jeff failed to declare it.

We all know what an obsession Jeff has with his hero Sir Henry so it stretches credulity that he cannot recall where the painting came from. Afterall, Jeff called Melbourne’s huge new bridge the Bolte Bridge, dug out Sir Henry’s old table for his office, erected a statue of Sir Henry out the front of the Premier’s office and modelled his style of government on Sir Henry’s get things done approach.

Jeff took the painting without reference to anyone. He had six weeks to clear out his office and did a lot of shredding over this time but clearly he did not shred the document which John Griffin signed showing he had borrowed the portrait.

The feeling among some gallery journalists is that Jeff took the painting unsure of the ownership status but justifying it in his own mind on the grounds that he had done a good job for Victoria and Sir Henry would have wanted him to have it. He only returned it after the Herald Sun contacted him but he was reluctant to respond to their queries until the NGV got involved.

If the Bracks government wants to show it is tough on accountability, it should at the very least insist on a police inquiry into this matter.

JEFF’S GOT FORM

Afterall, Jeff got fined for selling wine from his office without a licence, got fined for speeding in a borrowed Mercedes Benz whilst entertaining a visting German banker and allowed his family and staff to use government credit cards for private expenditure. He also used his position as Premier to obtain unusually large allocations of shares in hot floats for his family.

In other words, Jeff has a track record of getting into scraps where regulators get involved. Given all this history and the circumstances in this case, the Bracks government should have called in the police to force Jeff , John Griffin and the removalists who actually placed the painting in the Packer wing to explain what happened.

JEFF WENT AFTER JIM KENNAN

When Jim Kennan resigned as opposition leader and quit Parliament in 1993, I can vividly remember Jeff campaigning to have his superannuation payout blocked. His staff briefed journalists to try and paint Kennan as a greedy former politician taking something from the taxpayer that he was not entitled to. Steve Bracks should remember this when he defends the decision in Cabinet to let Jeff off the hook with not even a police inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened.

It is no different from the Howard government wimping it over Paul Keating’s piggery dealings because they feared setting a precedent of former Prime Ministers being pursued by a new government.

ROB HULLS MUST BE DISAPPOINTED

One can only imagine what Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls, the strongest anti-corruption campaigner in the new government, thinks of all this. Remember when Rob talked in opposition about setting up rules whereby politicians could not work for gambling companies for two years after leaving office. How long did it take Kerry Packer, owner of Crown casino, to give Jeff Kennett a job on 60 Minutes talking about the Brits stealing the Elgin Marbles from the Greeks?

GAMBLING DISTRACTION FOR BRACKS

Steve Bracks would have delighted with the Herald Sun for giving it two splashes in a row on its tough new gambling policies. The reality was that this package was actually a backdown on its election promises. Where were the tough new rules on the political associations of gambling companies? Maybe this was too hard after Crown, Tattersalls and Tabcorp collectively gave more than $30,000 to the Labor Party by turning up in droves at the notorious $1000 a head Labor Party fundraiser in December.

Merrill Lynch said the new rules would have only a marginally negative effect on Tabcorp and its share price has recovered from a recent low of $9 to $10.15. The new rules are actually good for Crown and Kerry Packer because they ban 24 hour venues in regional areas. These keen punters should just pop into Crown in the early hours from now on.

THE AUSTRALIAN STICKS IN THE BOOTS

The Australian really took the baseball bat to Steve Bracks on Saturday morning with a cover story in Focus headlined WATCH OUT, MR BRACKS. It ran through the list of problems his government faces such as a lack of ministerial talent, excessive union influence, plunging investor confidence and the government’s inability to make decisions, even on such banal issues as a new slogan to replace “Victoria on the move” on number plates.

The government is coming across as weak and soft – whether it be on the recovery of a missing portrait, clamps on gambling or control of the unions. However, it remains way in front in the polls because opposition leader Denis Napthine has failed to make an impact. Getting out of Jeff’s shadow was never going to be an easy task but the Opposition really should be scoring a few points by now.

Peter Fray

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