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Sartor: RWA was Cosmetic politics - Robert Domm was undermined

Frank Sartor, the Minister responsible for setting up the RWA, deals in passing with the RWA in a section on "The Undermining of Robert Domm" in his 2011 book "The Fog on the Hill - How NSW Labor Lost its Way". Below is the text dealing with the RWA and Robert Domm who was the first CEO of the RWA - REDWatch has earlier covered media reports on some of the matters mentioned in Frank Sartor's account.


Robert Domm, the CEO of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, resembles your archetypal union organiser. He left home at fourteen but dragged himself back to education and through university. I discovered him in 2000 when I was lord mayor and he applied for a job as my chief of staff. He had worked in the trade union movement for about eleven years—most recently in the airline industry—and had achieved impressive things. As well, he had managed to obtain three university degrees and a postgraduate diploma, and to achieve admission as a lawyer before he came to my office.

He got the job and was an instant success.

When the general manager of the City of Sydney left the organi­sation at short notice in July 2001, Robert Domm was appointed deputy general manager, in an acting role, until a new general manager could be found and appointed. After an exhaustive search for a new general manager had yielded an unimpressive list of second-raters, my colleagues and I decided to appoint Domm. The council was not unanimous, but the two opposing Liberal councillors soon became impressed with his performance and by the time I left the City of Sydney in April 2003 he had unanimous support.

Domm was honest, competent and very outcome focused. He had enormous integrity. Because of his union background he knew industrial law and was ideal to clean out the various rorts certain council staff were involved in. He discovered and stopped a number of them in quick succession. The unions, particularly the Municipal Employees Union (MEU—now called the United Services Union or USU) had found their match and set about undermining him. With my support—and council's—he was safe, Despite the unions' campaign, industrial action was never taken.

But some people in the union movement and the ALP have long memories and it was only a matter of time before they would get square. The demonisation of Robert Domm by the MEU extended to South Sydney Council and its left Labor mayor, Tony Pooley, who was unhappy that the City of Sydney had proposed to take over his council's areas and part of Leichhardt's.

In February 2004 the City of Sydney and South Sydney councils were formally dismissed in order to be reconstituted as the City of Sydney with new boundaries. Interim administrators were appointed comprising the Lord Mayor of Sydney (Lucy Turnbull), the Mayor of South Sydney (Tony Pooley) and Gary Payne, then the director-general of the Department of Local Government. They served for a matter of weeks until the new council under independent lord mayor Clover Moore was elected in late March 2004 and took office the following month. Pooley was elected as the of three Labor councillors of the new city council and served until the election of September 2008. He showed his dislike of Domm during this period, publicly attacking him during administrators' meetings.

Domm very deftly merged the two council administrations and made significant savings. But after the first six months of Clover Moore's administration, he and his senior staff were exhausted by the political dysfunction and administrative interference of the mayor and council. They felt that Moore needed courtiers rather than professional officers and Domm could no longer abide how his position was undermined. Pooley continued to attack Domm at council meetings. Domm resigned and the City of Sydney lost one of its best reformers. (Domm's replacement, Peter Seamer, an experienced administrator from Melbourne, similarly tired of the mayoral court and left only fourteen months after being appointed on a five-year contract.)

In October 2004, Carr had asked me to take on responsibility for Redfern and Waterloo, including the creation of the Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA). I subsequently approached Domm to take over the role of CEO for the new Authority, a job he was more than qualified for. Domm had impressed the then director-general of the Premier's department, Col Gellatly, during his time as general manager of the City of Sydney.

The Redfern-Waterloo Authority had no money, being another example of cosmetic politics, but we had to make it work—and we did, largely due to the efforts of Robert Domm. Two major building projects were started—the buildings for the National Information and Communications Technology Australia and Channel 7, both at the Australia Technology Park at Alexandria. All together some 2500 jobs were brought permanently to Redfern.The RWA facilitated the creation of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence on the site of the old Redfern Public School and turned the old courthouse and police station into a community health centre, funded by the sale of a disused hospital site. Hundreds of Aboriginal workers got construction jobs, and a hospitality-training centre was opened for Indigenous kids, alongside the development of the Eveleigh Market, another RWA project. The RWA also adopted new land-use plans for the area, leading to the rezoning of thirty-five hectares of land to promote investment and growth.

In July 2008, Domm also commenced work as CEO of Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, replacing Robert Lang, who had left to become general manager of Parramatta Council. He had been there for barely two months when Keneally was made Minister for Planning, with Tony Pooley as her chief of staff.

Keneally and Pooley, each for different reasons, were prejudiced against Domm. Pooley's, of course, was historical; Keneally, on the other hand, had no reason to dislike Domm, other than that he was believed to be `Sartor's man' and Keneally was strategically building bridges with Clover Moore, from whom Domm had parted company. Pooley and Keneally set about removing Robert Domm.

In December 2008, Collins met with Domm and suggested that he should leave the organisation, claiming that 'everyone wants you out'. Collins was a hands-on sort of person who had been blurring the boundary between his role as non-executive chair of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and the Authority's executive, excessively involving himself in administrative matters. Domm stood up to him and told him that he should not act as an executive chair when it was not provided for under the Authority's legislation. Collins would, for example, bypass Domm and go to regular meetings with Keneally, something that was clearly the role of the CEO. As minister. I would never meet with the chair of a statutory corporation without inviting its CEO except under the most unusual circumstances. No such circumstances existed here. Whether at the behest of Keneally or for Collins's own reasons, Domm was simply not invited. Collins reacted angrily to the rebuke but took the matter no further in a formal way.

This didn't stop the campaign to remove Domm.

The underwhelming Roy Wakelin King, who had worked with Keneally on World Youth Day in 2008, was appointed the new CEO of the Redfern–Waterloo Authority, commencing in February 2009. At Keneally's direction he set about investigating Robert Domm.

Wakelin King, an ex-military man, had been in charge of World Youth Day with Keneally as his responsible minister. Even though he was CEO of World Youth Day he had distinguished himself by being asked to leave the police command centre at Surry Hills during the event. Despite this, he had obviously convinced Keneally of his value because in late 2010 he was appointed CEO of the hastily formed. Sydney Metropolitan Development Authority.

Wakelin King called in the State Internal Audit Bureau (IAB), which left no stone unturned in reviewing, Domm's work while he had been CEO of the RWA. The IAB completed its report in May 2009 having found no evidence of misconduct, yet Donna was kept swinging in the breeze for months.The day before Keneally appeared at budget estimates in September 2009, Domm was told by Pooley that he would not be required. CFOs (sic) normally attend estimates hearings.

During questioning, Greens MLC Sylvia Hale raised anonymous allegations against Domxn that had been leaked to her relating to two staff appointments—one at the RWA and one at the Australian Technology Park. Domm was alleged to have engaged in 'political nepotism' by engaging two ex-council managers to temporarily assist him when he held the two simultaneous CEO positions—of the RWA and SHFA—at the government's request. Keneally responded that the allegations were serious, that they had been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), and that they were the subject of an investigation—even though the IAB had cleared Domm of misconduct in these matters months earlier. Robert Domm was never told of any such ICAC investigation by the ICAC or anyone else. Indeed, no evidence has emerged of any ICAC investigation into Domm.

Such undermining had its desired effect. Domm left SHFA in March 2010, having tendered his notice of resignation soon after Kelly became Planning minister the previous December. There has never been a finding of misconduct against him and he has never received any contact from ICAC. Another gatekeeper was gone.

Kelly now set about giving his mate Warwick Watkins total control of the Authority in addition to his role as CEO of the Land and Property Management Authority (LPMA). The independent directors of the SHFA board were removed.

In the year or so that followed, the Authority muddled along. Some commercial sites were sold, staff was sent off to the LPMA, and Tripodi's agenda of eliminating the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority was being realised through the political equivalent of Chinese water torture.

Also see: Sartor: Keneally discussed plan for North Eveleigh with Sydney Uni

Source: The Fog on the Hill - How NSW Labor Lost its Way by Frank Sartor Melbourne University Press 2011 pp133-137

Note: This extract has been made using optical character recognition and may contain some errors. It is provided for community comment and debate. Please refer to the original book to ensure correct citation - REDWatch