Concern over chief minister’s land agency resurfaces with referral to integrity commission

By Shannon Jenkins

December 4, 2019

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ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has landed at the centre of the territory’s first potential Integrity Commission investigation.

The Standing Committee on Public Accounts has been looking at various land deals made by the ACT government. Brought into the spotlight in 2016 by Auditor-General Maxine Cooper, the Land Development Agency was found to have made payments much higher than the government’s own valuations for the land. The agency was dissolved following Cooper’s investigation.

The LDA’s approach to acquiring leases for land adjacent to Glebe Park and the casino, Mr Spokes Bike Hire, Dobel Boat Hire and Lake Burley Griffin Boat Hire were “inconsistent and not defensible”, according to Liberal MLA Vicki Dunne.

In 2015, the government bought the land adjacent to Glebe Park for $4.18 million — more than four times its original valuation. This was shorty after Aquis Entertainment lodged an unsolicited bid for the land to redevelop the Canberra Casino.

Dunne — who chaired the committee — said the purchase has raised “many unanswered questions”.

“While it was said that the LDA acquired the lease in order to relocate stormwater management ponds, apparently with some urgency, the lease has been in the hands of the ACT government for the past four years without a sod being turned,” she said last week.

The committee’s recently tabled report on the matter raised concerns over the Chief Minister’s involvement, since he was the minister in charge of the LDA at the time. The committee questioned Barr and the casino developer, and received conflicting answers.

“Arguably, transparency suffered because of this approach. Some key witnesses, including the responsible minister of the time—who is currently the Chief Minister and Treasurer—have denied knowledge of details of the acquisitions,” the report stated.

“During the course of the inquiry the committee asked questions about the minister’s knowledge of the acquisition of land adjacent to Glebe Park and whether there was any connection between the acquisition and plans by Aquis Entertainment to re-develop Casino Canberra in such a way that would entail building on the land.

“Other former and present ACT government witnesses were also asked this question, and denied that there was a link between the two.”

The committee contacted Aquis Entertainment, and was told the government had been “well aware of, and indeed encouraged”, Aquis’ development plans.

“This raises the question of why the ACT government would intervene by acquiring the land when a transaction could have taken place directly between Aquis Entertainment and the then lease-holders, Glebe Park Pty Ltd, without involvement by government.”

In regards to Mr Spokes, Dunne said negotiations by the agency to buy the bicycle hire lease and business was a “process of attrition”, as the owners of the lease and the business were “often not able to tell whether the LDA intended to buy or not”.

“This speaks vividly of what happens when there is an unequal power relationship between governments and small holders and how it can go wrong,” she said.

The committee has recommended that the issue be considered by the recently established ACT Integrity Commission. It is the first matter to be referred to the commission, which started accepting cases this month.

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