Victorian Ministerial quitter Evan Thornley will no doubt be lying low for the next few weeks, hoping that Tuesday’s round of media briefings will kill off the conflict-of-interest firestorm surrounding his appointment as local CEO of battery swapping firm Better Place. But the timeline thrashed out between Thornley and his union spin doctors at EMC deserves serious scrutiny.
Thornley was apparently bewildered at the explosion of fourth estate outrage after he walked away from a plum post as Innovation Minister at the eleventh hour. After quitting on 28 December, he immediately fled to the south of France, leaving journalists to take pot shots and Premier John Brumby to clean up the mess. Thornley’s head-in-the-sand approach to PR will no doubt go down in spinner folk law as an example of what not to do when pulling the plug on a political career.
Finally returning to Melbourne this week, Thornley was careful to craft a timeline designed to distance his own Better Place dealings with the firm’s parallel negotiations with the Victorian Government. But if the confused narrative relayed to the press over the last few days is any indication, Thornley and EMC might need to go back to the drawing board.
First, Thornley says he only became aware of Better Place after an “associate” at Vantage Point, a venture capital firm that backed Better Place to the tune of $US100 billion, told him about it in May. But in late April, Thornley travelled to Israel on a junket organised by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce’s Guy Pross, who would later join Better Place himself.
The delegation, headed by Thornley, and including wife Tracey Ellery, sat through a series of Power Point presentations as you can see here — if their content is accurate Thornley would have been first aware of Better Place not through Vantage Point, but via this presentation on Israeli innovation delivered by venture capitalist, and Better Place investor, Astorre Modena. Check out the happy snaps of an attentive Thornley taking in the presentation here.
After few months of quiet contemplation, Thornley’s interest in Better Place and its enigmatic CEO Shai Agassi piqued again. In his interview with The Age, Thornley said his first meeting with Better Place was in mid-August when another “associate” at the AICC (probably Pross) suggested “he might be able to give Better Place some advice about doing business in Australia”.
But this appears to chafe badly with what he told The Australian on the same afternoon:
He [Thornley] said he rang Better Place founder Shai Agassi, whom he had met during a family holiday last September.
Now, unless Thornley and Agassi randomly bumped into each other in the Whitsundays, it would appear that the Silicon Valley duo were holidaying together and talking business at the same time Thornley’s then boss, Premier John Brumby, was stitching up a deal with Agassi to locate the Australian arm of Better Place in Melbourne. The Victorian upper house only sat for one week in September, leaving Thornley plenty of time to shoot the breeze with his new boss in the making.
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Then, on October 22, Brumby and Innovation Minister Gavin Jennings held a press conference in Melbourne, attended by Agassi, to give the government’s official backing to the $1 billion deal struck between Better Place, AGL and Macquarie Bank to build the ambitious electric car network. Thornley says he played no part in the government’s negotiations, but Agassi would have been brimming with confidence, knowing he had a man on the ALP’s inside track. His decision to court Brumby and Federal Innovation Minister Kim Carr must have been an easy one.
Agassi’s desire to tap government cash was explicit: “Australia’s government has a green car innovation fund of nearly $US340 million [sic], which makes a “compelling case” for carmakers to build electric cars there,” Agassi said.
It is unclear whether salary negotiations between Agassi and Thornley commenced in November and December but the Israeli spruiker’s burning ambition to tap Thornley to head-up his Australian operation was now undeniable.
When Theo Theophanous was charged with rape on Christmas Eve, Thornley was presented with a choice between embracing Agassi’s electric dreams and staying faithful to the voters of Southern Metropolitan. His Silicon Valley stopover with Agassi on the way back to Melbourne sealed the deal.