VCAT then agreed to my request to review the department’s decision. At this point I got a lawyer, as did the Department of Health and Human Services. We went to mediation, which stays confidential, and did not resolve the matter.
The VCAT hearing was held in January. The decision was handed down in February, requiring the department to provide to me most of what I was seeking. The documents finally arrived in March.
Was it all worth it? Yes, it was. A much clearer picture emerged of what was really happening. I hope this results in well overdue improvements at Park Towers and much better management by the Department of Health and Human Services.
In particular, I received a damning set of emails between the department and GJK Facility Services, which is responsible for cleaning at Park Towers. There were repeated complaints from the department to GJK. Many of the comments were scathing.
“At some stage,” wrote one clearly irate DHHS staff member to GJK, “I am going to have to decide is GJK negligent, incompetent or simply uncaring. Perhaps all three. Negligent certainly, as to the other two, time will tell.”
Another email read: “I note that this is simply the latest in a string of failures to meet contractual requirements at this estate, Park Towers and [redacted] and I am rapidly losing confidence in GJK’s ability to reliably and professionally perform the works it has contracted for.”
Yes, that’s a reference to “failures” at three public housing estates that GJK was contracted to clean. My FOI request was only about Park Towers, so I don’t know the identity of the other two.
I also learned that the Department applied liquidated damages for GJK’s failures to perform cleaning services at Park Towers and another unnamed public housing estate, in accordance with their contract or contracts.
It was obvious why the Department of Health and Human Services spent so much time and money trying to prevent access to these embarrassing documents.
In doing so, they argued that releasing them was not in the public interest and would unreasonably expose GJK to commercial disadvantage.
Given what was eventually revealed, these arguments are laughable.
During the VCAT hearing in January, the department confirmed that maintenance and cleaning at public housing estates is paid for by tenants’ rent, with no funding from Victoria’s consolidated revenue.
So I’d say Park Towers tenants had every right to know about DHHS’s complaints to GJK about the cleaning at their building, not least because they were paying for it.
The Department of Health and Human Services also gave evidence that GJK’s cleaning contract for Park Towers was renewed in 2018.
Why would the department extend a cleaning contract worth millions of dollars after what we now know was a documented history of non-performance? Not only that, it gave GJK more multi-million dollar cleaning contracts for other public housing estates at around the same time.
If their own past performance is any guide, the Department of Health and Human Services’ response will be to ignore these questions, find ways to avoid responding to them and hope they just go away. For the sake of tenants at Park Towers and in the interests of good management of public assets, it shouldn’t be allowed to.
Margaret Fitzherbert is a former Liberal state MP.