Questions – and answers – matter over the Leppington Triangle

By Bernard Keane

Friday October 23, 2020

Simon Atkinson (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

What a signal to send — if you’re big enough and ugly enough to take the commonwealth to court over long periods, it will give you what you want, writes Bernard Keane.

While Infrastructure Secretary Simon Atkinson gave a good impression of a leader having to clean up an inherited mess at Estimates this week, he and his current executive team themselves have some questions to answer about what could be the biggest public service scandal in decades — the Leppington Triangle land acquisition.

It’s aptly named: the parcel of land bought from the billionaire agribusiness — and Liberal donor— Perich family for 10 times more than its value could prove a graveyard for more than one public service career.

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That certainly should be the case for the public servant now under investigation both by former Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Vivienne Thom and, presumably, the Australian Federal Police. They were responsible for the extraordinary valuation process uncovered by the ANAO — one involving employing a valuer selected by the landowner and insisting the valuer conduct a limited valuation based on the most generous possible scenario for rezoning — so generous even the valuer pushed back against the instructions.

That the bureaucrat involved also met the landholders at a coffee shop by themselves and without making a file note adds to the sense that something deeply untoward is happened here — as does the fact that multiple briefs went to senior managers in the department without the price, or mention of the fact that many valuations far lower in value had been undertaken about the land.

The investigations by Thom and the AFP will demonstrate whether this was remarkable incompetence, or something worse.

Atkinson has only been at Infrastructure since November 2019, when Steven Kennedy, under whom the acquisition occurred, moved to Treasury. But the audit had only recently commenced by that stage. The conduct of departmental officials during the audit prompted a most serious finding by the ANAO. Its audit team zeroed in on the dodgy valuation process, but got stonewalled by Infrastructure officials when they asked questions about it, prompting the comment, “The department did not provide the ANAO with accurate answers when questions were first asked about the valuation approach, which was not ethical behaviour.”

Estimates this week revealed that Atkinson signed off on another disturbing response. The department’s response to the ANAO’s draft report in effect admits something went seriously wrong, and accepts the ANAO’s recommendations. But the response, signed by Atkinson, makes a remarkable claim in an effort to spread the blame for what went wrong around the valuation strategy.

“The Department agrees that the valuation strategy was unorthodox. However, we note that the strategy was developed in consultation with the Department of Finance and the Australian Government Solicitor and was designed to mitigate the risk of costly and lengthy legal challenges.”

But this was wrong, as we learnt from Estimates this week. Finance had been consulted on the overall acquisition strategy and provided initial advice on valuation processes, but Finance never saw the bizarre “how much would you like us to give you?” strategy put forward by the Infrastructure official concerned. Finance Secretary Rosemary Huxtable told the Finance and Public Administration committee that she had chipped Atkinson about it in September, telling him that his attempt to rope Finance into the scandal was wrong. Infrastructure then said they’d stop making the claim in public statements about the audit. But it remains in an audit report, uncorrected.

How did Atkinson sign off on a statement that misled the Auditor-General on the crucial issue at the heart of a huge scandal like this? Who prepared the response for him and briefed him to sign off on a falsehood?

And for that matter, since when was it commonwealth policy to pre-emptively cave in to other stakeholders just because they’re litigious? What a signal to send — if you’re big enough and ugly enough to take the commonwealth to court over long periods, it will give you what you want.

There are 30 million reasons why these questions matter — along with exposing just how taxpayers came to be ripped off by a bureaucrat with “unorthodox” ideas about valuation.

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