The Hodgman Government is facing its first crisis since the March election after minister Sarah Courtney was forced to stand down because of her “personal relationship” with the head of her department.
Premier Will Hodgman dropped a bombshell when parliament resumed on Tuesday and announced he had ordered a review into a possible conflict of interest between Ms Courtney and the head of the agency Dr John Whittington.
The government is under pressure to reveal how long the pair have been in a relationship.
They were part of Mr Hodgman’s Asian trade mission in September.
Labor leader Rebecca White said Ms Courtney had clearly breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct and it was “quite clear the wheels are falling off this government”.
She urged Mr Hodgman to reshuffle his cabinet, including appointing a new health minister.
“The question is how long has this been occurring between her and her head of department?” Ms White asked.
“Did they act appropriately when it became a conflict of interest?”
Ms White said she hoped the review by the head of the state service Jenny Gale was done swiftly.
Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said the relationship brought into question the decisions that have been made by Ms Courtney.
“Have they been made on the basis of independent and impartial advice?” Ms O’Connor asked.
“We’ve already had stakeholders contacting us questioning decisions that have been made by the minister.
“The Ministerial Code of Conduct requires ministers to avoid potential conflicts of interest and uphold the highest ethical standards.
“Ms Courtney has only been a minister for six months and this is a spectacular and awful fall from grace.”
Health Minister Michael Ferguson would not go into details about Ms Courtney’s relationship.
“There is a formal review - that’s appropriate, that’s the way it should go,” Mr Ferguson said.
“For now people shouldn’t rush to any judgements. I understand the natural curiousity but that is not what this is about.”
The Ministerial Code of Conduct makes no specific references to personal relationships unlike the federal code, which was amended after Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce had a relationship with his media adviser.
Mr Hodgman has taken on Ms Courtney’s portfolios.
“Tasmania is very fortunate to have a very capable and committed Premier and a great team working together,” Mr Ferguson said.
Ms Courtney told Fairfax she requested to step down from her responsibilities “pending the outcome of an independent review into a recent conflict of interest situation that has arisen”.
“I advised the Premier of the conflict on Sunday and have subsequently written to confirm my wish to stand down pending any review outcomes.
“The government has written to the Clerk of the House to advise that I will not be receiving my ministerial salary and allowances during this period.
“I do not intend on saying anything more publicly on this matter.”
Community and Public Sector Union secretary Tom Lynch said he was concerned about the disruption that would be caused by both a Minister and Head of Agency standing aside at the same time.
“DPIPWE is an agency that has seen significant staff cuts since the Hodgman government was elected in 2014 (142 FTE or 11 per cent of staff) despite having responsibility for parts of our economy that have experienced the largest growth such as agriculture, aquaculture and tourism,” Mr Lynch said.
“Morale in the organisation is extremely low and has been worsened by the Hodgman government’s election promise to relocate 100 DPIPWE jobs from Hobart to Launceston.
“This decision and the way it has been implemented by Dr Whittington has split work groups, undermined career paths and reduced efficiency.”
Political analyst Professor Richard Herr said the Premier had “acted quickly and responsibly”.
“Until we know more about it, it is difficult to see how bad the damage will be,” Professor Herr said.
“As the Premier said it is a deeply personal matter and workplace romances are not uncommon.”