Rees throws out another minister

TONY STEWART was dumped as a minister by the Premier, Nathan Rees, yesterday after an independent report into his behaviour towards a member of his staff at a charity function found he had held the woman down, verbally abused her and later lied about the incident.

Mr Rees had to ask the Lieutenant-Governor Jim Spigelman to remove Mr Stewart from ministerial office after the Premier failed in two conversations lasting more than an hour to convince Mr Stewart he should resign.

It is understood to have been possibly the first time in the Labor Government that a request had to be made to remove a minister. Normally they agree to resign after a scandal.

Mr Stewart is the second minister to be forced out in the nine weeks Mr Rees has been in office. In September the former police minister Matt Brown was forced to stand down after it was revealed he had danced in his underwear at a party in his office.

The sacking came after the barrister Chris Ronalds, SC, said in a report to the Premier that she accepted Tina Sanger's version of events of the incident at the Garvan Institute dinner where the small business and assistant health minister allegedly verbally abused her. Ms Ronalds said she did not "accept the denials by Mr Stewart of the events as recounted by Ms Sanger".

Last night, in a personal explanation to Parliament, Mr Stewart again denied the allegations and accused Ms Ronalds of a "subjective" report which relied on "hearsay evidence".

He said he would refer the matter to his lawyers with the hope of having "the report and its conclusions judicially reviewed".

"At no stage did I shout, raise my voice or touch Ms Sanger …We had a brief amicable discussion at Ms Sanger's instigation on work roles."

In her report Ms Ronalds said: "At approximately 9.40pm on 22 October 2008, during the course of a charity dinner, Mr Stewart initiated a conversation with Ms Sanger … in which he advised her that she was not 'up to the job' and he wanted to demote her to the position of assistant to the media adviser," the report said.

"This conversation was an inappropriate one to have taken place anywhere other than the office and should not have occurred during a function where both persons were representing the Premier and the Government."

Ms Ronalds' report said the "conversation and physical touching of Ms Sanger was entirely inappropriate".

"Mr Stewart had a short second conversation with Ms Sanger and placed his hand on her leg for a few seconds to prevent her from standing up to leave while asking her not to be upset and telling her that she would be happier in the other job.

"Even though there was no sexual connotation, he was restraining her, albeit for a few seconds only, against her will."

The report said Ms Sanger maintained Mr Stewart started the conversation and despite her repeatedly telling him it was not the appropriate place for the conversation, Mr Stewart continued, even claiming the Premier and his chief of staff wanted her out. The Premier's office denied that allegation last night and said it had not wanted to remove Ms Sanger.

In a text message to her chief of staff, Michael Galderisi, on the night of the incident, Ms Sanger said: "The minister has just tried to demote me around the tabel (sic) at the gala dinner in front of everyone. Told me you didn't want to take me on. It was him that pushed it. And that the premier and Ross Neilson want to get rid of me and he is trying to keep me as Gail's assistant. Nasty nasty piece of work mate."

On October 23, Ms Sanger brought a written account of the event to the attention of the Premier's deputy chief of staff, John Graham, and was moved to the office of Fair Trading Minister Virginia Judge.

But it was only when the matter was raised with Mr Rees in an interview with the Herald on October 28 and the Herald revealed the alleged incident that Mr Rees called Mr Stewart into his office and Mr Stewart denied it.

Mr Rees then said publicly he would dump Mr Stewart if the allegation was proved correct. But he said he could proceed with an investigation only if Ms Sanger lodged a complaint. She did that on November 3.

Mr Stewart was stood down pending the inquiry but other allegations of bullying involving current and serving police officers and a station master have emerged.

The Premier's office said it received Ms Ronalds' report at 4pm on Monday. It denied it had tried to bury the sacking on mini-budget day.

Mr Stewart had been unable to see Mr Rees on Monday so an appointment was made for 1pm yesterday. But after an hour, Mr Stewart had still not agreed to resign. Mr Rees met Mr Stewart again after question time. He still did not agree to stand down so Mr Rees moved to sack him.

The Opposition Leader, Barry O'Farrell, said Mr Rees only acted on the issue because of media pressure. "Nathan Rees promised to end the soap opera, stop the scandals. They both continue and it's because Nathan Rees and his team aren't up to it."