The bizarre affair of Labor candidate George Newhouse’s candidacy in Malcolm Turnbull’s Sydney seat of Wentworth at the November Federal Election is still bubbling away very nicely.

Questions were raised about whether Newhouse, a seasoned solicitor and mayor of Waverley, had resigned his position from a statutory quasi-legal body, the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, by the required date to allow him to stand legally as a candidate under Commonwealth electoral laws.

After Turnbull held the seat with a handsome majority, the Liberal Party complaint to the Australian Electoral Commission died a natural death and everyone thought the affair had gone away. Wrong: enter NSW upper house Liberal MP Catherine Cusack.

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On the eve of the election she moved an emergency motion to force the Iemma Government to table Newhouse’s resignation letter but it was defeated by one vote when the Greens infamously decided to vote with the ALP to conceal the letter from public scrutiny and the voters of Wentworth.

Now she has filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Fair Trading asking for a copy of the Newhouse letter which will show, presumably, the date it was written and received and how it was signed.

The decision to release the letter is in the hands of Fair Trading Minister Linda Burney, the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly who is from the so-called “left” faction and a passionate advocate of government accountability and transparency. Nevertheless, she is expected to do what Premier Morris Iemma tells her and withhold the letter from publication.

If this occurs, Cusack will pursue her motion in the Upper House when parliament resumes next month, this time hoping that she can pick up a crucial additional vote from the cross benches and compel the tabling of the letter.

Newhouse was appointed to the tribunal in 2002 and subsequently reappointed for another term which expires in 2010. In parliament on 29 November, Cusack raised conflict of interest issues saying:

By Mr Newhouse’s own admission he was a member of the CTTT whilst a Labor candidate for Waverley Council and Labor mayor of that council. He was a member of the CTTT whilst standing for Labor preselection for Wentworth and throughout the Rudd Labor campaign.

How is it possible that a member of the CTTT presiding over home building cases also can be deeply engaged in partisan activities such as fundraising for the Labor Party and sitting in judgment as a councillor and mayor over development applications? How can this conflict of partisan interest meet the standards set out in the code of conduct?

For the record, one of the clauses of the CTTT’s code of conduct states that members should “refrain from engaging in partisan political activity which is directly related to the work of the tribunal and which may impinge upon the perception of impartiality of the Member or the tribunal.”

While no one is suggesting that Newhouse has behaved in anything but a totally honorable way, the perceptual issues don’t look too flash at all.

Crikey contacted George Newhouse for comment, but he didn’t return calls before deadline.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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