Moira Shire Council: Inquiry alleges corruption, occupational health and safety failures

As far as country shires go, they don’t come more quintessential than Moira.

About 250km north of Melbourne, the Moira Shire, whose northern boundary is formed by the snaking passage of the Murray River, produces vast amounts of Victoria’s fruit, dairy and beef across its roughly 4000 square km, 30,000 residents and four main towns.

Some of these towns, such as Cobram, flourished along with the rest of the country with the influx of European migrants following the war, many of whom made the most of the bountiful opportunities afforded in the fertile soils of the Murray Valley.

But beneath the facade, something deeply insidious had seeped into some of the region’s most important institutions and workplaces.

It first presented itself in the most dramatic of circumstances when, on a winter’s night in 2021, the shire’s operations manager Rick Devlin was shot dead outside his rural home in cold blood by an aggrieved ex-colleague.

Camera IconNectarine orchards such as this one are rife throughout Cobram, which is a bustling agricultural region due to its highly fertile soil and favourable weather. PICTURE: ZOE PHILLIPS Credit: News Corp Australia

Less than 18 months later, the entire council has been sacked in an extraordinary intervention by the Victorian government, following a lengthy investigation which alleges a culture of corruption, bullying and incompetence had been the norm for years.

Those claims had been laid out in a 178 page report, co-authored by Frances O’Brien KC and John Tanner, which was submitted to the Victorian parliament this week.

Painfully, the report found the death of Rick Devlin could have been prevented if more had been done to rectify the harrowing working conditions in which it took place.

What on earth happened at the Moira Shire?

Murder of Rick Devlin

If the Moira Shire was a typical country shire, Andrew Paterson appeared to be a regular country bloke.

He had a background in a construction and trucking, worked in number of local councils across Victoria, and had been described as a self-reliant man who living with his wife of 23 years.

But not everything was easy-going at his most recent job at the Moira depot in the town of Nathalia.

A 2017 external report had found the culture at the depot to be “extremely toxic,” where the few women who worked there were subjected to abuse and harassment.

The CEO at the time of the report later said they were unaware of it, while the most recent CEO said her take was that there was not an issue at the depot.

The most recent inquiry found one employee was stood down for 11 months on baseless allegations, while an ineffective human resources department pursued “flimsy” disciplinary actions against the wrong people.

Andrew Paterson appeared to be a typical country bloke. But he found life tough-going as an employee of the Moira Shire, where he worked at the Nathalia depot. Supplied.
Camera IconAndrew Paterson appeared to be a typical country bloke. But he found life tough-going as an employee of the Moira Shire, where he worked at the Nathalia depot. Supplied. Credit: News Corp Australia

“What is not in any doubt is that the Nathalia works depot was the epicentre of a bitterly divided workforce driven by victimisation, threats, bullying, harassment, accusation and counteraccusation,” the O’Brien-Tanner report found.

“It broke some men who went on to long-term Workcover and drove others to resign.”

Paterson was one of the many victims of that workplace culture.

In 2019, he was stood down by the Moira Shire over fabricated allegations he had been stealing kerosene from the Nathalia depot. It was a common practice among workers to take some kerosene to clean their shoes, clothes and cars.

As a Supreme Court judge later wrote: “Your co-workers manufactured allegations against you, hoping to have you relocated or dismissed.”

Paterson never returned to work after November 2019, the month he was stood down.

His dismissal and the refusal to grant him a voluntary redundancy was “deeply resented” by Paterson, the inquiry found, and had it been better managed, “it is questionable whether the subsequent course of events would have transpired.”

The subsequent course of events are as follows.

On August 5, 2021, Paterson had been drinking beer in the afternoon with a friend he was planning on going camping with the following Monday.

His friend found his demeanour to be normal, according to the sentencing remarks published by the Supreme Court.

However, this was not the case when at 5pm Paterson’s wife called him, informing him that new Covid restrictions would prevent him from going on the camping trip.

He returned home, threw his dinner and other items around the kitchen and, after his wife left, got in the car and drove to Shepparton.

Before he left, however, he armed himself with a .38 calibre revolver – a gift from a friend some 20 years earlier – and wrote a suicide note for his wife.

But instead of shooting himself on his property, as he told police he intended to do, he drove to Shepparton to buy alcohol and then to Numurkah, where he stocked up on more booze.

Rick Devlin, a former corporal in the Australian Army and father of seven, was at home with his second wife on the night Paterson’s camping trip was abruptly cancelled. They lived just under 10km from Numurkah’s town centre.

About 8.30pm, Devlin saw car lights approaching his house and, believing it to be family, went outside to greet them.

But the lights of the car didn’t belong to a family member, they belonged to Paterson, who had driven to Devlin’s house from Nukurmah.

After hearing gunshots, Devlin’s wife Alison rushed outside to find her husband unresponsive.

She called triple-0 at 8.38pm and spent almost half an hour performing CPR on Devlin, all the while terrified the shooter would return.

Richard ‘Rick’ Devlin, Operations Manager at the Moira Shire, ran what was described as a “bitterly divided” workforce at the Nathalia depot. Supplied.
Camera IconRichard ‘Rick’ Devlin, Operations Manager at the Moira Shire, ran what was described as a “bitterly divided” workforce at the Nathalia depot. Supplied. Credit: News Corp Australia

Devlin was the Operations Manager at the Shire, the highest paid manager below the executive level. According to the inquiry, he ran the depots and outdoor workforce without any effective scrutiny.

He was described as not someone skilled at managing conflict and disputes among his staff, preferring to push people out the door.

He was resented by Paterson, who considered him to be responsible for how his dismissal was managed at the Nathalia depot.

“You believed he was responsible for orchestrating your removal from the workplace,” Justice Jane Dixon said in her published sentencing remarks in December 2022.

Justice Dixon referred to a comment Paterson made to police in his record of interview: “If you’re running the place, the buck stops with the boss, doesn’t it?”

In December, Paterson was sentenced to 26 years in prison, 21 of which must be served before he is eligible for parole.


Such was the evidence gathered by O’Brien and Tanner regarding the Nathalia depot and its culture, their report made a formal referral to the state coroner, which may now choose to investigate the further circumstances surrounding Devlin’s murder.

But the inquiry did not stop there.

It also highlighted the alleged corruption of a senior shire employee, the facilities management co-ordinator, who the inquiry said directed more than $500,000 worth of work to a company that employed his son in the border town of Albury without a tender.

The employee, who the inquiry said was supported in his role by Devlin, allegedly sent more money to a company at a later stage that was part-owned by his son.

The employee was stood down with full pay in October 2021, and retained his shire car, fuel card, corporate card and access to buildings until he was sacked in January this year.

This conduct has been referred to IBAC, Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog.

Camera Icon  Credit: Supplied

A graver standard of alleged conduct was a decision in 2019 to remove large quantities of soil contaminated with asbestos from a site near Nukurmah.

Despite specific warnings from Moira’s Waste and Recycling co-ordinator, who was ultimately dismissed for what the inquiry found were spurious reasons, the shire pressed ahead with the transfer of the contaminated soil to waste stations in Tungamah and Strathmerton, neither of which site were licensed to receive asbestos.

WorkSafe was not notified of Moira’s decision, the trucks transporting the waste were not licensed by the Environmental Protection Authority and the contractors involved were not provided with the requisite protective clothing.

All of this, the inquiry found, was done because the cost of transferring the soil to Shepparton, the closest site approved to receive it, was too expensive at $1 million.

“This was on any measure a Faustian compromise in which the trade off was the health of the council’s workforce, the contractors engaged to excavate and transport the contaminated fill, and Moira Shire residents,” the inquiry found.

The conduct of the shire regarding the removal of asbestos has also been referred to IBAC.

The lengthy report made stinging criticisms of other members of the Moira Shire, notably its CEO Clare Keenan.

Victorian Local Government Minister Melissa Horne said the decision to sack the council was done to protect the community.

“The removal of a local council is always a matter of last resort and undertaken only in the most serious of circumstances,” Horne said in parliament this week.

“While it is regrettable that this is necessary, the government has a responsibility to protect communities from governance failings by their local representatives.”

Tanner will take over as Moira’s independent administrator for three months until the appointment of a panel of administrators.

“It’s vital that every council represents its community. That was not the case in Moira Shire – the findings of the Commission of Inquiry demanded drastic action to be taken in the interests of local residents and businesses,” Horne said.

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