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O'Farrell must explain silence about Orica

A missing person alert dropped into some reporters' inboxes on Wednesday. ''Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Minister Robyn Parker please contact me,'' it read.

A missing person alert dropped into some reporters' inboxes on Wednesday. ''Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Minister Robyn Parker please contact me,'' it read.

A missing person alert dropped into some reporters' inboxes on Wednesday. ''Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Minister Robyn Parker please contact me,'' it read.

The message was from Labor's sharp-witted environment spokesman, Luke Foley. It was his latest attempt to ramp up pressure on Ms Parker, the NSW Environment Minister, over her handling of the leak of toxic hexavalent chromium from Orica's Newcastle plant the previous Monday, August 8.

In Mr Foley's view, Ms Parker was missing in action; while he and the Opposition Leader, John Robertson, had visited the affected suburb of Stockton, Ms Parker had not been been seen since a shaky media conference after the incident became public.

Labor achieved a partial victory this week when the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, announced that an inquiry would look into not only Orica's reporting of the leak, but how it was handled by his government.

Apart from scrutinising the government's actions, Labor has a couple of good reasons to go hard. Parker took the previously safe Labor seat of Maitland at this year's election, so anything that discredits her improves its chances of winning it back.

It also adds ballast to Labor's criticism of the O'Farrell government's performance on environment issues.

Labor had already used the Orica story to remind the public of the government's early decision to axe the Environment Department and downgrade it to an office within the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

The apparent bungling of the Orica incident made a mockery of O'Farrell's defence that the move ''elevated'' environment issues to where he could keep a closer eye on them, they said.

Parker was at the centre of that early skirmish as well. She was forced off the Liberals' upper house ticket for the 2011 election following a factional deal cut by O'Farrell in early 2010 to keep the leading moderate Catherine Cusack in the upper house and keep the peace between the factions.

In return, Parker was supported to contest the lower house seat of Maitland - far from a shoo-in for the Liberals.

She was controversially rewarded by O'Farrell for her victory with the environment portfolio at the expense of Cusack, who was widely expected to get the job.

O'Farrell took some flak over the move, as Cusack's dumping was seen as a sop to the Shooters and Fishers Party, which had been critical of Cusack. So, O'Farrell has a lot invested in Parker.

Yesterday, there were renewed calls for him to stand her down pending the outcome of the Orica inquiry. O'Farrell has been desperately trying to keep the focus on Orica's actions and what he has termed ''apparent delays'' in its reporting of the incident.

But the facts so far reveal Orica waited for 16 hours to alert the Office of Environment and Heritage about the leak.

With the same information, Parker waited almost 24 hours to alert the public, despite knowing Stockton residents might be at risk.

O'Farrell's desperation to distract the public from Parker was evident at the COAG meeting yesterday. Holding a doorstop with Canberra reporters, he suddenly asked if there were any questions about the story he had given a Sydney newspaper on widening powers for police to demand the removal of face coverings. There were no takers.

His next move is crucial. As it is his response to what is brewing as his first ministerial scandal, it will set the benchmark for his attitude to the all-important concept of ministerial accountability and whether it trumps the politics.


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