Shire CEO Carl Cowie’s luxury seven-day Mediterranean cruise at the invitation of prominent business baron Lindsay Fox continues to create waves, 22 months after the delights of the Athens-to-Venice odyssey have sunk well below the horizon.
This is made clear by Mr Cowie’s unexpected media release late last Friday (20 April, at 20 minutes to 5pm). Mr Cowie apparently felt obliged to reiterate and garnish in a Statement the fact that in June 2016 he “attended [the] cruise in a private capacity” as part of a long, distinguished guest list – omitting to mention that his wife Terri went, too, presumably as an invitee.
Kayaking, pedal boats and board sailing can be enjoyed from a marina at the ship’s stern or from a beach, according to the Seabourn website.
The CEO goes on to argue that he is “completely satisfied that accepting the invitation to travel on the cruise has not compromised his position as Chief Executive Officer and will not compromise his position in the future”.
That is arguable. It is Mr Cowie’s subjective view. If everyone closely involved in the controversy was as satisfied on this point as Mr Cowie, the matter would have gone to Davy Jones’ Locker months ago.
Mr Cowie’s Statement was enthusiastically supported by shire mayor Bryan Payne, who is quoted saying he “accepts Mr Cowie’s reasons for deciding to declare the cruise on the gifts register and looks forward to continuing to work alongside the Chief Executive Officer delivering services to the local community”, the media release said.
Cr Payne does not comment on whether the trip compromised Mr Cowie. But when the story broke last December Cr Payne agreed that the cruise “could look like a conflict of interest if it didn’t have council approval. I’m surprised you guys didn’t pick it up sooner,” he told the Mornington Peninsula News Group’s Keith Platt.
The story was indeed abroad for months before the MPNG published it. Bandicoot, ever mindful of the possible legal consequences of such a news story, hung back.
Cr Payne said in December Mr Cowie took annual leave and paid his own airfare to Europe. “The shire incurred no costs as a result of this trip,” he said.
Above: Mr Cowie and Homer, who wrote the epic poem The Odyssey, after which the cruise ship is named.
In its response to the MPNG the shire stated in remarks no doubt approved by Mr Cowie that the gifts register was “an internal corporate policy”. “Such policies are not placed on the council’s website.”
Mr Cowie’s Friday Statement puts the new position: “The Shire’s gifts policy and registers are available to the public to ensure the organisation meets public expectations around transparency and the disclosure of gifts,” it says.
But until just a few weeks ago, in late March, Mr Cowie’s position on the cruise remained that he did not have to register it because it was made at no cost to council and during his annual leave.
The Cowies sailed aboard the $200,000-a-day Seabourn Odyssey, a 450-passenger luxury ocean-goer, whose next scheduled sailing is this Wednesday, Anzac Day, from Lisbon to Rome via Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands, then Malaga and Barcelona in Spain and Monte Carlo in France.
The ship has 229 cabins to accommodate up to 450 guests and all the facilities one would expect – and a few more – on such a vessel. A full passenger complement would expect to pay an average of over $3000 a head for the seven-day Athens-Venice run.
Why was it necessary for Mr Cowie to make this latest statement? It appears the matter would not hit an iceberg and vanish – something of a problem, perhaps, with his employers, the 11 councillors, about to decide whether to offer him another four years as CEO on $400,000-plus annually, or to advertise the plum job.
And a continuing problem for Mr Cowie, clearly, with pressure coming from some quarters about his stance on what constituted gifts and why a shire CEO would be on the guest list of such an event as the Fox cruise.
A clue might come from examining Mr Fox’s other guests, invited on the “conception cruise”, to celebrate his 80th birthday. Also enjoying the Fox hospitality on the sleek new Seabourn Odyssey were many familiar names, including Hugh Jackman (right), Eddie McGuire, Solomon Lew, Gina Rinehart (left), Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Lloyd Williams, members of the Pratt family as well as Bill Kelty and Jeff Kennett. Some of the guests own property on the Mornington Peninsula.
To be blunt, the name “Carl Cowie” would not generally be associated with most of these people. It is understood the CEO and Mr Fox have become friends, and that Mr Cowie could well benefit from having met this group.
But for this scarred and cynical veteran of half a century in newspapers, this trip smacks strongly of “junket” – which the Oxford dictionary and Bandicoot’s journo mates define as “An extravagant trip or celebration, in particular one enjoyed by government officials at public expense”. Well, not quite “public” expense in this case, but a junket is a junket, a freebie.
Mr Cowie makes no mention in his Friday Statement of any particular benefit to the shire, of which he is the pre-eminent “government official”, he and his wife obtained from participating in the cruise. In fact, he specifically justifies not initially adding it to the the shire gift register because he was on leave and paid the airfares to get to Athens and home from Venice, and ergo it was none of anyone else’s business.
To reiterate: the MPNG was told back then: “The Gifts policy is an internal corporate policy. Such policies are not placed on council’s website.”
On Friday Mr Cowie stated that “From the outset, he has been transparent about the trip”, adding that “In addition to releasing further details of the cruise in January this year, he has now also declared the activity on the Shire’s gifts register”.
These months of resistance do not seem to Bandicoot to constitute a spontaneous act of transparency. Nor does the Statement’s final paragraph:
“The gifts registers are publicly available by contacting the Shire’s Governance team on 1300 850 600 to arrange a suitable appointment for inspection.”
Gifts declared by Mr Cowie and his staff should be open and transparent, freely available on the shire website. The tedious procedure to view the register means that governance staff can keep senior shire officers informed about who is accessing the registers – and enabling them to control who can see what, and when, as long as “suitable appointment” times can be arranged.
■ As reported by the MPNG, the shire’s Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality policy states: “Gifts, benefits and hospitality received must not create a real or perceived sense of obligation that may lead to a perception of preference or conflict.”
Mr Cowie, who the policy states is “owned” by him, has listed several items on the register, including attendance at the 2015 AFL Grand Final business lunch. Estimated value: $300.
In 2016 Mr Cowie, a Hawks supporter, accepted AFL Grand Final tickets ($100) from McArthur Management Services and “corporate football tickets” ($100) from Optus Australia. The same Optus “gift” was accepted by the shire’s chief information officer and manager aged disability.
Mr Cowie “passed on” tickets ($200 each) to a Cricket Victoria function at the MCG to the infrastructure strategy manager and an undergraduate engineer.
Other gifts accepted by Mr Cowie included two $200 tickets to a March 2016 function held at Southbank by an employment consultancy that deals only with executives in the $150,000-plus range (Mr Cowie is in the $400,000-plus range).
He also attended the firm’s Christmas $300 a head lunch in December. The shire’s chief financial officer also attended the lunch.
Here is the shire media release:
Statement from the CEO
20 April 2018 4.39pm
In June 2016 Mr Cowie attended a cruise in a private capacity. From the outset, he has been transparent about the trip.
In addition to releasing further details of the cruise in January this year, he has now also declared the activity on the Shire’s gifts register.
Mornington Peninsula Shire Mayor Councillor Bryan Payne (below), praised Mr Cowie’s decision for formally listing the cruise on the gifts register as being consistent with the Chief Executive Officer’s responsibilities under the Staff Code of Conduct.
Shire Mayor Councillor Bryan Payne said he “accepts Mr Cowie’s reasons for deciding to declare the cruise on the gifts register and looks forward to continuing to work alongside the Chief Executive Officer delivering services to the local community”.
The Shire’s gifts policy and registers are available to the public to ensure the organisation meets public expectations around transparency and the disclosure of gifts.
Mr Cowie is completely satisfied that accepting the invitation to travel on the cruise has not compromised his position as Chief Executive Officer and will not compromise his position in the future.
The gifts registers are publicly available by contacting the Shire’s Governance team on 1300 850 600 to arrange a suitable appointment for inspection.