The speculation that recently-resigned Victorian ALP Evan Thornley is planning to join Israeli spruiker Shai Agassi’s ambitious ‘Better Place’ electric car project is looking like the Christmas gift that keeps on giving for the Victorian opposition. Thornley’s coy party room pronouncement that he was about to go to a ‘better place’, without naming the firm, now looks more than a little churlish and threatens to call time on a stellar career that began in the cesspit of Melbourne Uni student politics.

‘Better Place’ has plans to replicate an Israeli network of car battery swapping stations here, a scheme that could easily fail, despite promises of millions of dollars in state and federal largesse. As parliamentary secretary for innovation, Thornley would have been intimately involved in the October launch of Better Place’s local operations attended by innovation minister Gavin Jennings. Better Place also stands to emerge a significant winner from Kim Carr’s $1.3 billion green car fund.

This exclusive interview given to Go Auto magazine in December by Marshall Towe, Better Place’s global development manager, now makes for interesting reading:

But he [Towe] said the strongest support came from the Victorian government and Premier John Brumby in particular for the plan, which will provide 250,000 charge stations around Melbourne by 2012.

Brumby had a vision — there’s a car industry here — and they were extremely aggressive and supportive,” said Mr Towe. “They took the time to understand what we wanted to do, and we had the same response from the City of Melbourne.

“For the next six to eight months, the most important thing to do is government relations policy.”

To that end, the company is urgently searching for “a high-end CEO with vision, who knows government and business, and can champion the cause” before assembling the rest of the Australian team required to achieve the $1 billion roll-out.

Who does that sound like?

The Australian CEO would be expected to earn up to $700,000 a year, many times Thornley’s parliamentary salary, and could possibly include a multi-million dollar equity stake. Ironically, with Thornley’s name now mud in Labor circles, any promised Better Place subsidy could be under serious threat.

Stuart Rintoul added some more intrigue in today’s Australian, recounting a trip Thornley took to Israel in March last year on behalf of Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce. At Better Place’s October press conference in Melbourne, Agassi fingered the AICC as a crucial factor in shoring up his Australian plans. In Thornley’s tour diary published on the AICC website, Thornley recounts a meeting with Zohar Zisapel of the RAD Group, who went to uni with Agassi and who together make up the fraternity at the core of Israeli business

It’s also worth re-examining the timeline that led to Thornley’s resignation. After Theo Theophanous was charged with rape on Christmas Eve, Thornley was immediately tapped to ascend to the Ministry. As late as 27 December, Thornley was still hitting the phones to secure support for his tilt. He announced his resignation just one day later on 28 December.

The sudden about-face doesn’t seem to gel with the narrative that Thornley had been weighing the pros and cons of public life over many months. Instead, Crikey understands Thornley may have been engaged in a stand-off with the Premier, who while backing him for the Ministry, failed to guarantee him Theophanous’ coveted number one position in Northern Metropolitan or, alternatively, a safe lower house seat. Thornley only just squeaked home in 2006 from second position in Southern Metro and given the ALP vote will almost certainly slump in 2010, he could have found himself out of a job.

There’s now massive pressure on Thornley to explain, from his hideaway in the south of France, the full extent of his talks in Israel and Melbourne and the circumstances in which a Better Place job offer may have been made. The outcome could be devastating; both for his storied reputation and a Brumby government unused to the stench of cronyism that has engulfed the other Labor states.