The 2014 Dickson Tradies land deal saga has finally been put to bed with the anti-corruption watchdog calling off its investigation because it could not find any evidence of wrongdoing.
The ACT Integrity Commission submitted its report on the matter – Operation Raven – to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly late on Tuesday (23 August) on the eve of its appearance before Estimates.
The so-called ‘Tradies land swap’ was referred to the Commission in 2020 by then chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Liberal Vicki Dunne, after the committee split on party lines in its report into former Auditor-General Maxine Cooper’s report on the matter.
The Liberal members of the committee found the-then Economic Development Directorate’s (EDD) conduct of the sale of Block 30, Section 34, Dickson to the Dickson Tradies did not meet reasonable expectations of due process and probity.
But the Commission has found that there was no wrongdoing and many of the criticisms made by the Auditor-General and the committee were not justified.
“The Commission is satisfied that the legal threshold for investigation was not met,” the report said.
The Commission found that the land sale process was adequate and complied with all necessary legal requirements.
“While there was an inappropriate lack of documentation surrounding some aspects of the transaction, there was sufficient material to enable the Commission to confidently conclude that there was no reasonable suspicion of corrupt conduct on any person’s behalf,” the report said.
“There was also no basis for a reasonable suspicion of political interference in the transaction.”
The report also cleared Chief Minister Andrew Barr of claims that he injected himself into the process to influence the outcome in favour of the Tradies.
“There was no evidence before the Commission that he was involved or sought to be involved in the negotiations at any point, let alone that he sought to influence any material decisions except, at the outset, the decision to sell the land by open competitive process,” the report said.
Mr Barr said Liberal claims of government corruption had again been found to be baseless.
“This is the second matter put before the Integrity Commission by the Canberra Liberals alleging corruption by ACT Ministers and public servants, and again the allegations have been comprehensively debunked in the ACT Integrity Commission’s Special Report,” he said.
In February, the Commission cleared the government of any wrongdoing over the 2015 Glebe Park land deal.
Mr Barr said measures had been put in place to improve documentation for land transactions of this nature.
On 15 December 2014, the ACT sold the land in question to the Canberra Tradesmen’s Union Club Ltd (the Tradies) for $3.18 million, in return for the Territory agreeing to purchase from the Tradies Block 6 Section 72 for $3.55 million; and Block 25 Section 72 for $45,000.
This occurred after a tender process for Block 30 in which the Tradies and Woolworths were the only bidders.
The Commission found the Tradies’ bid was plainly superior.
It said an unreliable land valuation, a mistaken view that costly parking requirements had been reduced and contestable legal advice from the Australian Government Solicitor had led the Auditor-General to making flawed assumptions which the Liberal members of the committee ran with.
“Although what happened might be regarded as a ‘land swap’, there is nothing in principle unusual about a purchaser of one property selling another to finance the purchase,” the report said.
While the Auditor-General had been critical of the land deal, she had also found no evidence of wrongdoing by any ACT Government ministers or ACT Government officials.