The AFP has launched a criminal investigation into a $32.8 million land deal made by the Federal Government to buy land near the new airport in Western Sydney.
The land has been dubbed the ‘Leppington Triangle’ and it is expected to be needed in about 30 years for future stages of the Western Sydney airport development.
The Government paid $32.8 million for this 12 hectare parcel of land after valuing it at just $3 million less than 12 months earlier.
In recent weeks, the auditor general released a scathing report into the deal. At the centre of the controversy is the fact that the sellers , the Leppington Pastoral Company is operated by the billionaire brothers Tony and Ron Perich – significant supporters of the Liberal Party, having donated a total of $176,600 to the party since 2002.
‘Scathing report’ by the Auditor-General
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) put the deal under scrutiny and also found federal officials did not act ethically by concealing price comparisons or doing appropriate due-diligence.
What’s more, the Auditor-General also found officials met the landowners in coffee shops with no record of the discussion, while phone conversations were recorded in an ad hoc manner.
Infrastructure Department officials have also been accused of not telling Paul Fletcher, the urban infrastructure minister at the time, and the key minister responsible for the airport, important details about the valuation of the land.
But there are also questions around the fact that Mr Fletcher did not seek more information on the sale price when the deal was going through.
In 2019, The Infrastructure Department conducted an internal review of the transaction but cleared itself of any wrongdoing. But the ANAO also found no indication that any official outside of the Western Sydney Unit had participated in the internal review.
Current Minister Michael McCormack told media recently that while the amount paid was ‘over the odds’ it would seem like a ‘bargain’ in the future.
Public spending needs greater transparency
That’s not the point though. These transactions are made with taxpayer funds, and, as was highlighted earlier this year in the Sports Rort scandal, there is legislation in place to determine how spending decisions are made to ensure that all public money is handled ethically and appropriately.
In this instance, on the basis of what has been reported so far, it would seem that Australian tax payers have paid an inflated price for this particular piece of land. In fact, ten times more than the land had been valued at less than 12 months prior to the sale . The Auditor-General’s report points to due process not being followed and a lack of transparency around the deal.
Calls for a Federal Anti-corruption Commission
The chairman of the Centre for Public Integrity, former NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy, QC, said the purchase “fails the integrity test” and highlighted the need for a federal anti-corruption commission.
But here’s the rub. The Morrison government had legislation to create a federal anti-corruption body ready before the Covid-19 pandemic but has still failed to introduce it to parliament.
Interestingly, the delay of a federal anti-corruption commission was mentioned in the Federal Government’s recently embarrassingly leaked Talking points’. It is a list of suggested responses written by the public relations team for all government ministers who might find themselves under media scrutiny.
The ‘talking points’ instruct Coalition MPs to blame Covid-19 disruption for the fact that the Commission is no closer to forming, and to recommit to its creation “as soon as possible” after pandemic recovery efforts.
Despite the attempt to blame Covid for delay, the government has introduced a slew of bills unrelated to the pandemic in 2020 including legislation, such as legislation to ban refugees’ and asylum seekers’ access to mobile phones in detention.
For now, the AFP investigation continues. The AFP has confirmed that it’s investigation seeks to “identify potential criminal offences relating to issues identified in an ANAO report into the sale of land to the Commonwealth at Badgerys Creek”.