The first report from the ACT’s anti-corruption body has cleared Chief Minister Andrew Barr and then government officials of any wrongdoing in the Glebe Park land deal saga.
The ACT Integrity Commission investigation was launched at the behest of the then Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts chair, Canberra Liberals MLA Vicki Dunne, after the tabling of its 2019 report into the defunct Land Development Agency land purchases as part of the City to Lake project.
The most significant one, the 2015 Glebe Park land deal, in which the Labor Government purchased Block 24 next to the casino for four times its original value, had been heavily criticised by the Auditor-General.
The original estimated value of the Block 24 lease was between $950,000 and $1.05 million excluding GST, while the price ultimately paid was $3.8 million-plus $380,000 GST, although the commission said the original valuation had excluded future potential use and did not reflect actual market value.
This had been linked to an announcement in 2011 by then Planning Minister Simon Corbell of a housing development on the site. The commission called the low valuation a “triumph of deference to political announcement over commercial reality”.
The Opposition claimed conflicts of interest tainted the sale process. It accused the government of being influenced by the casino and its expansion plans, targeting Mr Barr, the responsible minister at the time.
But the commission dismissed these, saying there was no evidence of any corrupt behaviour.
The land in question was a 1.2-hectare block left over from the development of the Glebe Park Apartments, owned by four partners, including Graham Potts and Barry Morris.
As well as Mr Barr, the roles of then-LDA chief David Dawes, his deputy Dan Stewart, and Colliers International principal Paul Powderly, who provided valuation advice, all came under scrutiny.
Mr Dawes always maintained that the primary motivation for purchasing Block 24 was the relocation of Coranderrk Pond to facilitate a realignment of Parkes Way.
Mr Powderly said his unpaid advice was not part of a formal process, something the Auditor-General had criticised, but the commission said the “omission to obtain a formal valuation and to rely, instead, on Mr Powderly’s expert opinion does not, by itself, or in the circumstances as a whole, raise a reasonable suspicion of corrupt conduct”.
Nor did his arrangement of a meeting between the Mr Dawes and Mr Stewart with the owners of the Glebe Park land at Colliers.
The committee had claimed that the government had in its mind the casino and the expansion plans of its owner Aquis Entertainment when negotiating the purchase of the land, but the commission said the evidence simply did not support this.
It said it would have been lawful and proper for the government to mention the land in any communication or meeting between the two, and no impropriety in the Chief Minister being aware of Aquis’s aspirations.
It would also be sensible for the casino to have an interest in what might happen to an adjoining property.
“The most reasonable view of the evidence is that the Aquis proposal did not, in its initial form, encompass the possibility of acquiring an interest in Block 24,” the commission said.
“Furthermore, the lack of any follow-up by Aquis strongly supports the inference that there was no support indicated by government at the meeting for the proposal.
“This, together with the absence of anything that realistically suggests that government at any relevant level was contemplating any proposal involving Block 24 and the casino, removes any proper basis for using the commission’s coercive powers to undertake what would, in substance, be no more than a fishing exercise.”
The committee suggested that a conflict of interest arose because the government was the landowner, decision-maker on planning and lease conditions, and regulator of gaming in the Territory, but the commission said this was not the case even if a decision about one might impact on a decision as to one or more others.
The commission concluded that the evidence did not provide grounds for a reasonable suspicion that the Chief Minister, Mr Dawes, Mr Stewart or any other official acted corruptly in connection with the acquisition of Block 24, nor was there any evidence that Mr Powderly acted other than appropriately.
It would not be pursuing the matter further.
Another report will deal with the acquisition of three hire businesses and leases at Acton – Mr Spokes Bike Hire, Dobel Boat Hire, and Lake Burley Griffin Boat Hire.