There are more questions than answers after the tragic suicide of Energex boss Greg Maddock last Friday and both The Courier Mail and the Beattie Government have some explaining to do, as Christian Kerr explains.

Queensland – corrupt one day, not much better the next. Or 20 years later. The old nexus between politicians, coppers and the meeja in the Sunshine State may have changed since Tony Fitzgerald shone his torch into some of its darker corners, but it still works in much the same way.

After Crikey’s reports on the death of the CEO of Queensland power utility Energex Greg Maddock yesterday, there are stories in both the Australian and the Courier Mail today.

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Both directly refer to suicide – a far move from the pussyfooting at the weekend that produced lines like these from the Age: “The head of one of Australia’s largest energy suppliers, Energex, has died suddenly in Brisbane… Friends said Mr Maddock had been under political and media pressure after a spate of power cuts and questions about energy services and costs in Brisbane.” Other than that, however, today’s two stories have very different emphases.

“Energex boss in funds inquiry”,The Courier Mail says:

“Energex chief executive Greg Maddock was under investigation for alleged misuse of public funds when he committed suicide last week, it can be revealed.

“Police have set up an investigation into the allegations, which were being examined by state Treasury officials at the time that Mr Maddock, 50, stepped in front of a train at Wilston in inner-suburban Brisbane last Friday.

The Courier-Mail has confirmed the existence of the original Treasury investigation with a number of sources, some close to the Maddock family.

“Police are believed to be examining the allegations with a view to establishing a possible motive for Mr Maddock’s suicide.

“Police are believed to be examining his business expenses account and financial records.

“Peter Beattie’s office said yesterday the Premier believed it was inappropriate to make any comment on Mr Maddock’s death…”

There’s more – but no detail about the specific nature of the allegations. So what did they involved – a substantial rip-off of funds or a failure to reconcile his last corporate credit card statement by the end of the month?

There is no indication of the scale of the alleged “misuse” in The Courier Mail’s report. It looks like a snow job. Did Peter Beattie’s media minders feed them a line?

The financial records issue gets a mention in The Australian’s item, but well down the story. While it’s not online, reporter Rory Callinan has put the politics as the lead:

“A high level Queensland police investigation is under way into events surrounding the suicide death of the head of the state’s embattled government-owned electricity corporation.

“Energex chief executive officer Greg Maddock, who had been under pressure from Premier Peter Beattie to improve the power supplier’s performance, died at Wilston station, in Brisbane’s northern suburbs, at 1pm on Friday after apparently stepping in front of a moving train.

“The station is less than 1km from Mr Beattie’s home, prompting speculation from some government sources that Mr Maddock had been attempting to send a message to Mr Beattie and his government.

“Mr Maddock had been under pressure to resign after an independent review handed down in July had criticised Energex’s focus on profits at the expense of network maintenance.

“The review prompted Mr Beattie to question the performance of power company chiefs’ and announce his intention to strip them of their bonuses in their next contracts.

” ‘I’ve got to fix this and the easiest thing to do is fire someone,’ he said at the time. ‘But does that mean, come the storm season. we have actually got the system fixed? The answer is no.’

“The criticism came despite the Beattie Government stripping more than $600 million in profits and special dividends from its energy utilities…”

Expenses only get a mention halfway into the story – and only get two pars:

“A top-level police investigation led by a detective inspector is preparing a report for State Coroner Michael Barnes about the death.

“The investigation is understood to be probing all aspects of Mr Maddock’s affairs with scrutiny paid to whether he had come under pressure over issues to do with expenses or poor record keeping.”

The Australian’s Editor, Chris Mitchell, is a Queenslander and a former editor of the Courier Mail. He is also a fierce rival of his successor at Bowen Hills, David Fagan.

How do we interpret the two very different treatments of the same story? Did the local lads at the Courier Mail get the full political briefing on quiet – and the Australian know the same material, but put it all in a broader context? Brisbane is a one-newspaper town, remember – so that gives the Courier Mail incredible agenda setting power.

The Courier Mail lead the campaign against Energex earlier this year that created a major political crisis for the Beattie Government and Queensland Labor on the eve of the federal election.

Premier Beattie created a new Department of Energy in August and a new minister, John Mickel, when 250,000 homes in the state were blacked out..

‘The criticism [of Maddock and Energex management] came despite the Beattie Government stripping more than $600 million in profits and special dividends from its energy utilities,” the Australian says today.

Energex’s dividends policy – what it pays to the Government – was determined by the Government-appointed Board, not the CEO. The Government Owned Corporations Act spells this out clearly. The Government decided to milk Energex and was aided and abetted by a sympathetic Board.

Maddock joined Energex in 2001, some three years after Queensland Labor over the Treasury benches and set the “focus on profits at the expense of network maintenance,” as the Australian puts it, dividends policy in place.

Maddock should not be blamed for the Government’s decision to gut the electricity utilities at the expense of network development and maintenance.

The doctrine of Ministerial responsibility makes the shareholding ministers – the Treasurer, Terry Mackenroth, and Energy Minister John Mickel and, ultimately the Premier – responsible for these decisions.

“Maddock was under huge pressure and felt he was being unfairly dealt with,” an energy insider has told Crikey. “The Government had effectively gagged him from defending himself, and were happy to duck-shove responsibility for the fiasco that is the Queensland electricity supply system to executives and managers.

“The fact that the Somerville Inquiry’s Terms of Reference specifically excluded consideration of the GOC Act, which details the responsibilities and roles of elected Ministers, speak volumes about who the Government was trying to blame.”

There have been allegations of political cronyism over electricity boards – and a decidedly hands on approach from the Beattie Government in dealing with the power crisis, documented in detail by the Courier Mail.

Now, however, it looks as if the paper and the Premier have an interest in common – avoiding any suggestion that their action forced Maddock to take his own life.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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