28 August 2020

Rural land deals should go to corruption watchdog, say Libs

| Ian Bushnell
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Committee chair Vicki Dunne

Committee chair Vicki Dunne: lack of proper processes and evidence of significant probity risks and maladministration. Photo: File.

The controversial Labor Government acquisition of rural land to the west of Canberra between 2014 and 2018 should be referred to the ACT corruption watchdog, according to Liberal members of a Legislative Assembly committee.

Labor members Bec Cody and Tara Cheyne have dissented from the committee recommendation, saying that both the Auditor-General and the committee had already fully investigated the matter.

But committee chair Vicki Dunne said the lack of proper processes and evidence of significant probity risks and maladministration suggests that some of these land deals would benefit from further investigation by the ACT’s Integrity Commission.

The committee also highlighted potential conflicts of interest relating to former government staff and planning decisions to do with ACT Government ownership of leases on ACT land.

The committee inquired into the report of the Auditor-General into the land deals, and tabled its report in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday.

Auditor-General Dr Maxine Cooper in 2018 identified probity issues and a lack of transparency in the now defunct Land Development Agency’s purchase of rural land on the western edge of Canberra.

Dr Cooper said that there had been a disconnect in the priorities of the work undertaken by the former LDA and the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD).

READ ALSO LDA’s western land purchases lacked transparency, probity, says Auditor-General

The audit also found that probity was lacking, and there were probity risks in some of the actions of the former LDA in its purchase of the properties, as well as not enough documentation.

Between 2014 and 2018, the LDA spent $43 million buying 3,378 hectares of rural land, of which 3,274 hectares is in the Western Edge Study area, as a potential future urban development front, although there is no certainty of this. The land was identified in the 2012 Planning Strategy as the subject of future investigation but six years on this had not commenced.

There were also questions about the role of former deputy CEO Dan Stewart and unsolicited advice from Colliers International’s Paul Powderly.

The committee found that the LDA did not adhere to planning polices or follow the acquisition framework, and acquired properties without the explicit authorisation of Cabinet.

It also found that Colliers International had a considerable degree of access to the LDA, and that LDA accepted and then followed Colliers’ advice unreservedly.

The Liberal members of the committee found that the Chief Minister and Treasurer, Andrew Barr, then the Minister for Economic Development and minister responsible for the Land Development Agency, was on two occasions involved in the approval of the acquisition of rural leases during this period but there is no evidence to suggest that he considered whether the LDA acquisition of rural leases to the west of Canberra was consistent with existing ACT Government policy or in alignment with the Land Acquisition Policy.

The committee made five other recommendations including that the government investigate appropriate arrangements for senior officers leaving the ACT Public Service and immediately taking up private sector roles in areas relevant to their service, and that planning studies in the ACT be conducted independently of land tenure, including ACT Government ownership of leases on ACT land.

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