The head of Australia’s Infrastructure Department has indicated public servants may have attempted to cover up actions that led to the decision to purchase land next to Western Sydney Airport for 10 times as much as its actual value.
Appearing before a Senate estimates hearing on Monday, Simon Atkinson also said he’d appointed the former inspector-general of intelligence and security, Vivienne Thom, to investigate the matter.
In September, it emerged the Commonwealth bought the 12.26 hectares at Bringelly off Leppington Pastoral Company for almost $30 million in July 2018, which is eventually planned to be used for the airport’s second runway.
However, less than a year later, the federal Department of Infrastructure’s accounts showed it actually valued the land at $3.065 million, or a tenth of the price.
It also subsequently transpired that NSW had paid 22 times less per hectare for a 1.36-hectare slice of the so-called ‘Leppington triangle’.
At Monday’s hearing, Labor senator Penny Wong told Atkinson it looked as if someone was trying to cover up details.
“Senator, I agree with you,” Atkinson replied. “I’m trying to clean it up.”
Atkinson joined long after the incident took place and said he had ordered two internal inquiries into possible breaches of the public service code of conduct.
“I want to get to the bottom of what happened, which is why I’ve pulled in an independent auditor of my own so that I can get to the bottom of the facts,” he said.
He also said he referred the matter to the police, but was told an investigation was already underway.
On Friday, the AFP said its probe would “identify potential criminal offences relating to issues identified in an ANAO report into the sale of land to the Commonwealth at Badgerys Creek”.
The AFP emphasised that the investigation is ongoing and it is “too early to speculate on potential outcomes”.
The purchase was needed for a realignment of a road, which was a key link between Narellan and the M4 motorway.
After the revelation, federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir argued the department didn’t exercise proper due diligence on its purchase, adding that the agency’s operations “fell short” of ethical standards.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, however, defended the government’s purchase, which he said would one day be seen as a “bargain”.
“I appreciate that, yes, it was very much over the odds, I appreciate there’s a review going on into how that actually happened,” Deputy PM McCormack said. “But eventually when there is a need [for] more runways and more infrastructure to be built at Western Sydney Airport, they’ll look back and say, probably, ‘What a bargain that was’.”
However, he did concede that “there should have been better processes around it” even though it will in time be seen as a “very good investment”.
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