Caretaker mode is underway for the Napthine government ahead of Victoria’s November election but on the way out to a predicted bleak future the government has been busy putting out tenders and tying up loose ends before polling day.

But before switching off the lights the government made a number of swift moves, some causing an angry backlash.

At an annual awards night for Victorian real estate agents last month, Real Estate Institute of Victoria chief executive Enzo Raimondo told the 1300 strong crowd the government would go ahead with changes they had understood were being considered for after the election, not before. The government would exempt very large properties of over 10,000 square metres or worth more than $15 million from using a licensed agent in a sale or lease. The rule effectively cut out agents from big transactions and cut the regulated checks on sales and leases. The REIV was given an hour’s notice before the government announced its backflip on October 20. Raimondo said he was incredulous when he heard the government would be making the changes.

“You’re actually going to pick a brawl with an industry group five weeks before an election, do you think that’s wise?” he asked the government’s emissary.  The idea was passed by the executive council of cabinet.

“This is a free for all,” Raimondo said. “This government is working in blissful isolation of the public and stakeholders and making policy decisions in a vacuum.”

Expressions of interest have been opened, some with closing dates a week later, to build and refurbish facilities in Coalition heartland seats of Mildura and Premier Denis Napthine’s own seat of South-West Coast. Fire stations in Napthine’s seat are to be replaced and expressions of interest closed mid-August after being open for a week. The new Warrnambool fire station is set to cost $7.7 million.

In Portland, where another station is to be built, the CFA’s Facebook page shows the old building of its seaside fire station is yet to be demolished.

The government announced it would build the stations as part of a $125 million 2013-14 budget commitment, and in late September the Emergency Services Minister Kim Wells said the program was “well on track”. But on November 2 the government still had five more stations to build by the end of the month, including the two projects in Napthine’s seat.

Napthine posed in a sod-turning photo shoot in February this year, six months before the expression of interest (EoI) was announced. A spokesman for the CFA said the EoI was open for their normal seven-to-ten day period and that the projects were funded and would go ahead. Nick Reece, public policy fellow at the University of Melbourne (and former senior adviser to Labor premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby), says the standard period for an EoI or invitation to tender was 21 days.

“The period allowed for tender response should be commensurate with the complexity and value of the contract, but preferably not less than 21 days, except in a situation deemed by the Principal to be an emergency,” he said.

Shadow emergency services spokesman Wade Noonan says to encourage a broad range of interested tenderers the expression of interest should be open for an appropriate amount of time.

“They are not insignificant projects,” he said. “An expression of interest of a week or so appears to be a limited amount of time, but that is just one stage of the tender process.”

The quick pace of the tender process at another site, Sandhurst disability care centre in Bendigo, raised union anger in September as the service was contracted out by tender which was brought forward by five months. The tender was open for 19 days.

The last announcement before the start of caretaker mode was to appoint firms to design buildings and bridges for the $700 million redevelopment of Melbourne Park.

This morning Deputy Premier Peter Ryan and former Rodney MP Paul Weller, who is now contesting an unlikely position on the upper house ballot, announced a $96 million commitment to a bridge over the Murray River from Echuca to Moama. The timing of the announcement is questionable as the government was in caretaker mode at the time, and it has committed the government to a project which still requires approval from the New South Wales and Federal governments.

Caretaker conventions state “the Government should avoid: implementing major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government” and avoid “entering into major contracts and undertakings”.

A spokesperson for Ryan told Crikey: “The Echuca Moama bridge decision was signed off by government before the caretaker period, and as per advice given to the Coalition, such decisions can be announced after the caretaker period has begun”.

Peter Fray

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