MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire CEO Carl Cowie was among the high profile guests aboard a luxury liner cruising the Mediterranean for a so-called “conception party” of prominent businessman, Lindsay Fox, a year-and-a-half after accepting council’s top job.
The cruise was made in July 2016, an appropriate time before Mr Fox’s 80th birthday was celebrated in April this year with far fewer guests at Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove at Red Hill South.
The boundary of Mr Fox’s sprawling Portsea property was contentiously extended across the beach by the Titles Office on Christmas Eve 2013 after a build-up of sand increased the distance to the acknowledged high tide level.
The mayor Cr Bryan Payne last week said Mr Cowie took annual leave and paid his own airfare to Europe.
“Carl Cowie was a guest on the trip organised by Mr Fox last July. He was on annual leave and paid his own airfare to and from Europe. The shire incurred no costs as a result of this trip.”
Council on Friday did not respond to questions from The News about any declaration about the trip made by Mr Cowie on the shire’s gifts register.
The shire’s Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality policy – an “internal” document “owned” by the CEO – states: “Gifts, benefits and hospitality received must not create a real or perceived sense of obligation that may lead to a perception of preference or conflict.”
The policy also states: “Councillors and council staff are to ensure that attendance at private functions does not have potential implications for council’s reputation or image or may cause an actual or perceived conflict of interest.”
The News does not suggest any wrongdoing by Mr Cowie.
When first contacted about Mr Cowie’s trip, Cr Payne said the Fox cruise happened before he was a councillor (he was elected in October 2016) “but I did know about it”.
“I agree it could look like a conflict of interest if it didn’t have council approval,” Cr Payne said. “I’m surprised you guys didn’t pick it up sooner.”
The Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality policy is not publicly available on the shire’s website.
The official council response provided to The News on Friday stated: “The Gifts policy is an internal corporate policy. Such policies are not placed on council’s website.
“The register has been audited on an annual basis. There is no legal requirement to make this available externally subject to Freedom of Information requests.”
Neighbouring Frankston Council’s Staff Gifts and Hospitality Policy register is available for public inspection.
As reported widely at the time, Mr Fox – generally regarded as one of the peninsula’s most high profile property owners – chartered the Seabourn Odyssey for a seven-day trip between Athens and Venice for his “conception cruise”.
The ship costs about $200,000 a day to charter and is capable of carrying more than 450 passengers. Mr Fox’s guests included actor Hugh Jackman, TV personality and Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire, retail billionaire Solomon Lew and his Premier Investments CEO Mark McInnes, mining magnates Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, former Crown Casino boss and horse breeder Lloyd Williams, the Pratt family and politicians Bill Kelty and Jeff Kennett.
Several of the cruise guests own property on the peninsula.
Mr Cowie has just returned to work after a council-sanctioned trip which included seminars and conferences in Sweden, Germany and Malta.
This latest overseas trip was paid for from his $30,000 study tour allowance on top of his near $400,000 salary package.