Paul Fletcher said $30 million airport deal was ‘sensible’, inquiry hears

By Shannon Jenkins

March 11, 2021

Minister for the Arts Paul Fletcher
Minister for communications, urban infrastructure, cities and the arts Paul Fletcher. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Australian National Audit Office officials have raised concerns that only one of the two public servants who played a role in the controversial Leppington Triangle land purchase are subject to a code of conduct investigation. The officials also revealed that the responsible minister, Paul Fletcher, had said the deal seemed “pretty sensible”.

Last year the ANAO found the Department of Infrastructure had paid $30 million for a 12-hectare land parcel near Western Sydney Airport in 2018, despite it subsequently being valued at just $3 million. The land was purchased from Liberal Party donor Leppington Pastoral Company.

In January 2018 Fletcher received a brief from his department outlining the proposed purchase, including that it would be in the “vicinity” of $30 million, to which Fletcher annotated “seems pretty sensible to me”, ANAO executive director Brian Boyd told the inquiry.

At the Senate finance and public administration references committee on Wednesday, Senate committee chair Tim Ayres said Fletcher’s response seemed to “indicate a distinct lack of curiosity”.

Read more: Opinion: secret airport land deals set to expose rotten public service practices

Boyd noted that there was another brief which had raised concerns for ANAO, which had been given to the department’s deputy secretary and chief financial officer on March 6 2018.

The brief had proposed the department purchase the Leppington Triangle for up to $31.78 million, despite them believing the land to be worth $30 million at the time.

Boyd told the inquiry he was concerned that the decision-makers didn’t question the brief, as it didn’t contain the information needed in order to be “properly informed”, such as the valuation report.

“If you read the language a certain way, you can understand that what had been agreed to was that the commonwealth would underwrite the difference between what New South Wales pays for its portion, and what the commonwealth was paying, so that the land holder gets $30 million,” Boyd said.

“But it doesn’t directly say that we’ve agreed to underwrite this and why that makes a value-for-money, sensible thing for the commonwealth to do.”

READ MORE: ‘Commonwealth may have been defrauded’: Coverup could be afoot in bungled $30 million airport deal

The inquiry also heard ANAO’s concerns about largely undocumented meetings between public servants and landholders that were unrelated to the Leppington deal, which Boyd said may indicate “a broader issue”.

At a previous hearing, infrastructure secretary Simon Atkinson revealed two public servants were under investigation — and one suspended — over their role in the land deal, with concerns that there may have been a cover-up at hand.

On Wednesday the inquiry heard that just one public servant was being investigated by former inspector general of intelligence and security Vivienne Thom.

Boyd told the hearing that ANAO only found out about Thom’s code of conduct investigation after tabling its audit report last year. He said the department had used an early draft report for the basis of a review into one department official, not the tabled report which raised concerns about two officials.

The department hasn’t begun an investigation into the second official, against the ANAO’s advice, despite the second public servant being the person who signed off on the March 6 briefing, Boyd noted.

“To my knowledge, at this stage, they’ve said to us that they’re awaiting the result of the Mark Harrison work before they make any decisions as to extending [the investigation], if at all,” he said.

Harrison, a financial risk expert, has been conducting an audit of the Leppington Triangle transaction, separate from the Thom review.

Following the hearing, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said he was concerned by the revelations that only one of two staff members were being investigated.

“I’m worried the government’s not taking it seriously enough,” he told reporters.

“We’ve seen sports rorts, we’ve seen this particular rort around the land deal around Western Sydney Airport, we’ve seen taxpayer funded executive bonuses, they’ve been flying ex-ministers around Europe campaigning for the OECD job. We’ve got a billion dollars spent on advertising. We’ve had more money spent on market research. For all of these reasons, I think Australians are entitled to conclude that this is a government which treats taxpayer money like its own.”

Last year the ANAO, for the first time ever, referred the land purchase to the Australian Federal Police. The AFP has been investigating the deal since July.

READ MORE: Huxtable flags reforms in wake of bungled Leppington Triangle purchase


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