Just months out of a state election, Victoria’s alternative government has been thrown into disarray by a leaked email, a “disastrous” interview and a slow-moving fallout.
Details of a proposed arrangement between a wealthy Liberal Party donor and the Opposition Leader’s chief of staff came to light at the beginning of last week.
Matthew Guy fronted the media within hours and announced his chief of staff had resigned, and seemed determined to put the issue to bed.
However, in the days since, the series of events stemming from that initial revelation have only gathered momentum.
A Liberal MP, who did not want to be named, recently told the ABC that Mr Guy’s position as leader was precarious and another scandal would be fatal, but said that, in the absence of an alternative, he may hang on until the election.
At the start of May, when Mr Guy pledged extra funding for Victoria’s watchdogs, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and the Victorian Ombudsman, he said his party was “focused on rebuilding our system of integrity and honesty in government “.
The government’s integrity came under fire last month, with the release of the results of an IBAC investigation detailing “extensive misconduct” by Labor MPs, as well as an ombudsman’s report rehashing the “red shirts” scandal.
The Opposition Leader has been eager to turn voters’ minds to integrity and trust in government, but struggled to formulate a response as his own office was subject to scrutiny.
So, how did the opposition get to this point just over three months out from a state election?
The proposed arrangement
On August 2The Age published revelations about Mr Guy’s chief of staff, Mitch Catlin, approaching billionaire party donor Jonathan Munz for payments totaling more than $100,000 to his private marketing business, Catchy Media.
Mr Catlin said no contract was signed, and Mr Guy fronted the media and asserted more than once that the arrangement, brought to light by a leaked email, had only ever been a proposal.
“We’re acting on a perception — this wasn’t even put in place,” he said.
That day, the Andrews government announced it would refer the matter to the state’s integrity agencies, IBAC and the ombudsman, Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police and the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC).
It also published a list of 14 questions directed at Mr Guy about Mr Catlin’s proposed arrangement.
Almost a week after the initial reports, Mr Guy appointed his childhood friend, Nick McGowan, as his new chief of staff on August 8.
Mr McGowan has also been preselected as a Liberal candidate for an upper house seat in the Eastern Metropolitan Region, but Mr Guy stated his new chief of staff wouldn’t be campaigning for the seat during working hours.
The Opposition Leader and Mr McGowan have a close personal and professional relationship, with Mr McGowan best man at Mr Guy’s wedding, and his chief of staff while he was planning minister in the Baillieu-Napthine government.
Mr McGowan will also be forced to take leave by November 10 when the VEC deadline for candidate nominations closes, meaning Mr Guy will also need to find a replacement for his top aid for the final two weeks before the election.
The appointment caused some frustration inside the party, with one Liberal MP, who did not want to be named, labeling the move a “shocker” and “a job for a mate”.
They said it sent a “poor message” to the party’s other candidates that they did not need to bother campaigning until they lodged their nomination.
On that same day, Mr Guy was criticized for his performance during a 12-minute radio interview on 3AW where he repeatedly refused to answer questions about when he first found out that Mr Catlin had approached Mr Munz about the proposed arrangement.
Rather than starting a fresh week on the front foot, Monday’s events put Mr Guy right back to square one, and the interview drew harsh responses from listeners.
One man who identified himself as a “rusted-on Liberal voter” said Mr Guy had “lost the election” by being evasive.
Another caller described the interview as “disastrous.”
Over the next few days, multiple departures from Mr Guy’s office kept the issue in the spotlight.
On August 10Mr Guy’s director of communications, Lee Anderson, resigned after reportedly clashing with Mr McGowan.
Mr Anderson — who had decades of media experience — has since been replaced by an existing Liberal Party media team member, Alex Woff.
On August 11the departure of a third staff member emerged.
There were conflicting reports about whether Mr Guy’s diary manager quit or was fired, but the staff member left and has since been replaced.
On August 10, amid the staffing changes, the opposition published its own list of 48 questions on integrity addressed to Premier Daniel Andrews and Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan.
On Friday, August 12all eyes were on Mr Guy when he addressed reporters in Albury-Wodonga, his first media event since August 8, despite Shadow Health Minister Georgie Crozier saying days earlier that the Coalition was in “full campaign mode”.
Mr Guy revealed the VEC had requested he provide “any documentation”, including his emails, related to Mr Catlin’s proposed arrangement with a Liberal Party donor.
He said the body had “begun some preliminary work” and had asked for documents.
“I’ll comply and make sure that we work with them at every stage, and every step,” Mr Guy said.
He also expressed frustration that interest in the fallout from Mr Catlin’s proposed arrangement coming to light had lingered so long.
“I am sorry that this issue has come around, and that this issue has been a feature for a week and a half,” Mr Guy said.