City of Melbourne endured the most scrutinised gathering of its councillors in history last night as Australia’s first major political sexual harassment scandal in the #metoo era took more twists and turns.
Acting Lord Mayor Arron Wood did a good job in difficult circumstances, having to open the meeting with a statement acknowledging the passing of former Lord Mayor Ron Walker, whose state funeral was held at St Paul’s in Melbourne this morning.
Wood was a Doyle man so it was difficult for him to then formally note the resignation of that other equally famous Liberal lord mayor Robert Doyle, plus the resignation of Team Doyle councillor Tessa Sullivan who has alleged she was sexually harassed by her leader.
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You can hear Wood’s words at the start of the three-hour audio recording of last night, which is available here.
As has been widely reported in today’s media, Greens councillor Cathy Oke delivered an emotional and powerful speech endorsing the investigation by Ian Freckelton QC, supporting her former colleague Tessa Sullivan and saying she felt disempowered by the delays in releasing the final report.
This delay has largely been triggered by the actions of former lord mayor Robert Doyle who has both lawyered up and declared himself too unwell to further participate in the inquiry.
The lengthy agenda was changed so that the 20-strong media pack and packed public gallery wouldn’t have to sit through the full three-hour meeting before getting to the Doyle issue.
After just two public questions at the beginning of the meeting, we were into item 6.6.1, which was called “Update on the status of the investigation into allegations regarding the Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle AC and related matters”.
City of Melbourne CEO Ben Rimmer made a statement, including that he couldn’t guarantee the public release of the inquiry because “there are a whole range of legal processes currently underway”.
One of those legal approaches was to the ABC on Monday afternoon where Q&A was put on notice that I wasn’t to discuss the Doyle situation on Monday’s program. They were clearly unhappy with this piece on 7.30.
The option of seeking a permanent injunction to suppress the report is clearly on the table, although given the public interest and multiple witnesses involved, the optics of this would look terrible for the former lord mayor.
He would have to effectively run a defamation argument against multiple witnesses who have fronted up to the Freckelton inquiry and told their version of events.
While the Doyle legal and PR team maintains that “he continues to strenuously deny the allegations made against him”, Chip Le Grand had the scoop in The Australian on Tuesday that Doyle told the investigator he did stroke Oke’s thigh at a dinner in December 2014, but only to signal which CEO candidate he preferred for the job.
This might be plausible if a vote was about to take place and both candidates were at the dinner, but only one candidate was at the dinner and the vote later occurred at a day-time meeting of all 11 councillors, not just the three-councillor CEO-recruitment committee.
I was the third member of the committee and observed Robert Doyle stroking Cathy Oke’s thigh under the table and said as much when appearing before Ian Freckelton. Cathy Oke has reportedly given evidence that it happened on multiple occasions during the dinner, similar to the evidence given by the wife of a Melbourne Health employee.
Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett has come out swinging in support of Robert Doyle, today using his Herald Sun column to attack Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy for appointing her own QC, Charles Scerri, to investigate Doyle’s 10-year run as chair of Melbourne Health.
“If Hennessy launched a full independent inquiry into every subject of a professional complaint in the hospital system, there might be nobody left to treat us,” Kennett declared.
However, once Doyle’s ministerial boss did appoint the QC, you would think he would co-operate with the inquiry. A comprehensive witness statement from the complainant was sent to him, but by the time Doyle resigned as chairman on Sunday night there had still been no appearance or written response. Doyle has been hospitalised in the meantime, so it is too early to definitively say whether he is being “uncooperative”.
So who is contributing to the unfair process as the victims keep being told they are not allowed to speak publicly until the final reports have been released?
The Melbourne Health witness was most unimpressed with Jeff Kennett’s claims of a witch hunt to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell on Monday, telling The Australian he was “a disgrace”.
Indeed, as the great and the good of Melbourne gathered at Ron Walker’s state funeral this morning, a few of them might have reflected that the book is closing on that small circle of old white male voices — Kennett, Doyle, Mitchell, Eddie McGuire, Herald Sun boss Peter Blunden, etc — which have long dominated the conversation in Melbourne.
*Stephen Mayne is a former City of Melbourne councillor.