Last September, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released a report slamming the federal Department of Infrastructure (DOI) for purchasing land related to the Western Sydney Airport from a billionaire family for 10 times its market value in what ANAO called a “significant and unusual transaction” that “did not exercise appropriate due diligence” and “fell short of ethical standards“.
This land, known as the Leppington Triangle, was purchased by DOI for $29.8 million in 2018. But ANAO found that the department had written off 90% of the purchase price within only 12 months, valuing the land at just $3.1 million.
A Senate committee has been scrutinising the deal, and ANAO staff previously told the committee that infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher was briefed on the proposed transaction by officials from his department and told them that the deal seemed “perfectly sensible to me”.
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The inquiry has now heard Geoffrey Watson’s views on the deal. And Watson, a director of the Centre of Public Integrity, told the inquiry that the purchase was either the result of “gross incompetence or corruption”. He also said the case highlights the need for a federal anti-corruption body:
“The money used to make the purchase was public money and the funds withdrawn were administered by public officials”…
“Given the processes were readily available to assume [the land] at commercial value [it is] unjustifiable to purchase it at more than market value. To make the purchase at 10 times its value must show the decision was one of two things. It had to be … either gross incompetence or corruption – it can’t be anything else.”
A cynic would argue that the owner of the land, Leppington Pastoral Company, is a major donor to the Liberal and National parties. Therefore, this deal stinks of corruption and graft.
However, given the DOI was the decision maker, it’s probably more a case of gross incompetence – first by DOI and then Minister Fletcher.
Regardless, when viewed alongside other scandals, such as the sports rorts affair, it is clear that we need a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Such a body would provide greater scrutiny of dodgy deals and would hand out appropriate penalties to wrongdoers.
Similar ICAC bodies exist across the states, so why not the federal government too?
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