BY PAUL AUSTIN
THIS is the story of a cabinet minister, her hot-shot husband, Labor’s most marginal seat and a Liberal attack that suggests this year’s state election could turn very nasty.
Would-be Liberal MP Michael Gidley, who hopes to depose Women’s Affairs Minister Maxine Morand in the key seat of Mount Waverley in November’s election, has called for the sacking of new Environment Protection Authority boss John Merritt – because he is Ms Morand’s husband.
Labor insiders last night accused the Liberals of a personal attack and were suggesting that Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu would come under pressure to disown the comments and dump his candidate.
The blow-up raises questions about when the personal becomes political and suggests the Australian tradition that politicians’ families are off-limits will be tested as Labor battles to win a historic fourth term in Victoria.
Mr Gidley has denounced Mr Merritt’s appointment as chief executive of the authority – announced just before Christmas by acting Premier Rob Hulls – as a political act that must be revoked.
He said it would be ”impossible” for the environment watchdog to meet its legal responsibilities – including giving independent advice to the Government on the environmental impacts of cabinet policy decisions – with a minister’s husband in charge.
”John Brumby and Maxine Morand’s appointment of her husband over Christmas is not only completely inappropriate, it’s an insult to all conservationists who support an independent EPA,” Mr Gidley told The Age.
He said Waverley residents who believed there were shortcomings in the EPA’s monitoring of pollution in the area were worried their views could not be represented by their local MP, ”now that her husband is running the EPA”.
”Our local environment deserves nothing less than an independent EPA run by the best and brightest independent CEO,” he said.
Ms Morand and Mr Merritt are on leave and were unavailable for comment, but Labor hit back hard last night.
Government spokeswoman Roxanne Punton said: ”This appointment was made through a proper, independent process. When Mr Baillieu said families should be left out of politics, he must have meant only Liberal Party families.”
EPA chairwoman Cheryl Batagol said Mr Merritt was unanimously selected by an independent panel, on merit, as the person with the most appropriate experience, skills and capabilities for the role of chief executive.
”John Merritt is an outstanding choice,” she said.
”He is an exceptional leader and a very experienced regulator.”
Mr Merritt, whose five-year term at the EPA starts on February 1, has been executive director of health and safety at WorkSafe Victoria since 2001. Before that he was CEO of the National Safety Council of Australia, and he has held senior roles in the trade union movement and private firms.
Ms Morand become the member for Mount Waverley – which she holds by just 0.3 per cent – in 2002.
She became a minister after premier Steve Bracks and deputy premier John Thwaites resigned in mid-2007.
Ms Morand and Mr Merritt have two children.