Apparatchiks could be sued

by Chris Griffith
Published 10 February 1996 in The Courier-Mail


my face


Members of the embattled Goss government could be exposed to personal liability actions in a multi-million dollar damages case initiated by a Queensland developer, should government in Queensland change next month.

In 1994, property developer and Brisbane restaurateur Godfrey Mantle launched a $77 million writ against the state government and the Southbank Corporation.

Mr Mantle claimed the Goss government in 1991 had reneged on an approval by the former National Party government in 1989 of Mr Mantle's $25 million public riverside attraction, to be built at the base of Brisbane's Kangaroo Point cliffs.

The attraction was never built.

Mr Mantle is well known as the owner of the three Jimmy's on the Mall restaurants in Brisbane's Queen Street mall.

In October last year in the Federal Court, Justice Susan Kiefel asked Crown legal representatives whether the government would indemnify one of the ministers named in Mr Mantle's legal action -- former Minister for Land Management, Bill Eaton.

Justice Kiefel said: "Some of these courses pleaded give rise to a personal cause of action against the minister and are often pursued against the minister personally".

Replying to a question from Mantle's lawyers, Justice Kiefel said she would discuss the possible personal liability of others government officers involved in the negotiations with Mr Mantle if "we can find some time".

She asked Crown barrister Philip Morrison QC to clarify whether the state government would accept "responsibility" for Mr Eaton.

Mr Morrison said he would seek instructions from the government. Preliminaries of this case are due to be concluded next month.

But yesterday the Queensland Coalition said it would make up its own mind on the issue of indemnifying those named in the Mantle case, should it form government in early March.

Shadow Attorney-General Denver Beanland said a Coalition government would consider the pros and cons of granting indemnities to Labor ministers and senior advisers, and whether a settlement with Mr Mantle was possible -- but only when it had examined the case fully.

The Crown Law office has refused to comment on this case, as has the Premier's Office because the matter was before the court.

Mr Mantle's original claim against the government contained 13 grounds, including breach of contract, infringement of copyright, defamation, civil conspiracy, and a breach of federal trade practices. The claim was filed by Mantle's private company, J L Holdings Pty Ltd.

In April last year the case moved beyond commercial considerations to issues about the integrity of government, after Justice Kiefel ordered the government to release dozens of highly confidential Cabinet documents detailing its dealings with Mantle.

After examining these documents, Mantle's lawyers added civil fraud to the company's list of grievances in a revised claim which names among others, Premier Wayne Goss, former Cabinet Secretary Kevin Rudd, Mr Eaton, former Director- General of the Department of Administrative Services, Ross Dunning, and former government adviser David Barbagello.

The fraud allegation is that after receiving internal legal advice, the government through Mr Eaton pretended to offer Mr Mantle natural justice in a ploy designed to strengthen its case against paying Mr Mantle any compensation.

The government invited Mr Mantle to lodge a submission on his project's future, but the invitation occurred well after a cabinet meeting on July 1st, 1991 which had decided to axe the cliffs' project.

In its defence, the government has argued that the cabinet decision was not binding on Mr Eaton, and therefore its invitation was genuine and in good faith.

It is understood an expert report provided to the Court in December by accountants Coopers and Lybrand had calculated that Mr Mantle, who still had resources dedicated to the project, incurred a further loss of around $6.5 million during the time government delayed in telling him the project had been axed.

The report is understood to have calculated Mr Mantle's total losses at February 1990, when the government first declined to endorse the project, as between $34.4 million and $38.0 million. But in October 1991, when Mr Mantle was finally told the project had been axed, his losses had blown-out to between $40.8 million and $44.5 million.

In his statement of claim, Mr Mantle alleged that by May 7th, 1991, Premier Wayne Goss "either alone or in consultation with others including Kevin Rudd", the then Director of the Office of Cabinet, "and Ross Dunning", the then Director-General of the Department of Administrative Services, had already decided Mr Mantle's plan for the old naval stores was to be rejected.

The statement said a memo by Mr Rudd to then Acting Premier Tom Burns in May 1991 asked Mr Burns to "speak with the private developer and deliver him the bad news". On May 27th, 1991, a meeting at which Mr Rudd was present discussed "advice or expression of opinion from Barbagello that no compensation would be paid to the applicant" (J L Holdings) if an alternative proposal proceeded.

And on July 1st, 1991, State Cabinet axed the project, in cabinet decision 1348.

Yet on July 17st, 1991, after several meetings involving the Office of Cabinet and the Administrative Services Department, Mr Eaton invited Mr Mantle to place a submission before him, saying that while he was not inclined to endorse the project, a final decision had not been made.

In his claim, Mr Mantle said he was finally told the project was axed on October 4th, 1991.

Full-scale deliberations on the damages are expected late this year -- unless a settlement is reached with whoever governs in George Street.