Vietnam investment controversy claims besieged Deputy Chief Minister

DEPUTY STEPS DOWN: Willem Westra van Holthe will spend the remainder of the current term of government on the backbench after he quit the deputy leadership on February 14 amid conflict of interest allegations.
DEPUTY STEPS DOWN: Willem Westra van Holthe will spend the remainder of the current term of government on the backbench after he quit the deputy leadership on February 14 amid conflict of interest allegations.

EMBATTLED Deputy Chief Minister Willem Westra van Holthe has fallen on his sword and will move to the backbench after being embroiled in what he describes as a “smear campaign” involving personal emails and bank statements being leaked to the media.

After a tumultuous four days of parliamentary and public scrutiny over his planned $650,000 investment with the Vietnamese company given approval in 2014 to build a 10,000-hectare dragon fruit orchard in the Northern Territory, Mr Westra van Holthe confirmed to the Katherine Times on February 14 that he had quit the deputy leadership and relinquished his ministries with immediate effect.

In addition to the Primary Industry and Fisheries portfolio, he is also the Minister for Land Resource Management, Public Employment and Essential Services.

“I’m acting in the interests of the government, because the government needs clear air to get the message out about the good things we’ve done in the last three-and-half years,” he said.​

“This hasn’t been a particularly difficult decision to make​.”

He held a press conference at Parliament House at 4pm on Sunday to announce his decision.

Pressure mounts on Member for Katherine

During a heated question time on February 10, Opposition Leader Michael Gunner demanded Mr Westra van Holthe either step down or be sacked on the basis that his personal business relationship with CT Group president Tran Kim Chung constituted a conflict of interest under the Legislative Assembly (Members’ Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards) Act 2008.

In addition, Mr Gunner said he planned to refer the matter to the Northern Territory Police because he believed a “criminal offence may have occurred”.

It was later revealed that Mr Westra van Holthe’s new partner, Theresa Phan, had been employed by the CT Group at the time he signed a share offer to invest in the company’s Space Ship 1 retail development.

Documents supplied to the Katherine Times show Commissioner Reece Kershaw referred the complaint to the police special references unit for “further consideration” on February 12.

Despite Chief Minister Adam Giles offering his support in Parliament last week, a beleaguered Mr Westra van Holthe said on Sunday afternoon that he had decided to step aside “in the interests of the Country Liberal Party”.

However, one government minister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,​ said Mr Westra van Holthe had been presented with an ultimatum by his cabinet colleagues to either move to the backbench voluntarily or face the humiliation of being sacked by the Chief Minister.

“Of course, I’ve spoken with a number of my colleagues and listened to their views [but] I arrived at this decision of my own volition,” Mr Westra van Holthe said.​

Plan to ‘campaign hard’ following resignation

He maintained that he still believed he had no conflict of interest, adding that he would still contest the seat of Katherine at the August election.

“I have stated, in hindsight, that I made a mistake in discussing those sort of things with the CT Group,” he said.

“At this stage, certainly my intention is to campaign hard for the next six months … and not having the responsibility of the ministries will allow me to spend more time in the electorate, which is critically important.”

Mr Westra van Holthe’s decision will force a problematic cabinet reshuffle for the Giles government, with two high-profile ministers – Treasurer Dave Tollner and Attorney-General John Elferink – already preparing to hang up their political hats at the end of the current term.

It remains to be seen what the new cabinet will look like following Mr Westra van Holthe’s resignation, but several sources on the fifth floor confirmed Minister for Business Peter Styles – who holds eight additional portfolios in the existing incarnation – was the front runner to take on the duties of deputy for Mr Giles.