NEWCASTLE University resisted publicity about aspects of its $1 million relationship with controversial Doyles Creek Mine in 2010 because of fears of ‘‘reputational risk’’, internal university emails have shown.
The university came under increasing pressure from the mine’s new owner, NuCoal, in March and April 2010 to publicise Doyles Creek Mine-funded scholarships.
But senior university employees agreed in an email on March 19, 2010, that ‘‘now is not the time for a media release on the scholarships’’, only a day after former union boss John Maitland’s $9.8 million stake in Doyles Creek was first made public following a controversial invitation-only tendering process.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption will hold an inquiry in March into former NSW government minister Ian Macdonald’s granting of the Doyles Creek exploration licence in late 2008.
The March 19, 2010, email was circulated only eight days after a ‘‘wonderful’’ first formal meeting between senior university and mine representatives, in which the university emphasised the ‘‘ways in which we can assist Doyles Creek to lift the bar in establishing the training facility and the mine’’.
Immediately after the meeting, university donor relations manager Libby Rodgers-McPhee emailed Andrew Poole of mining company ResCo, headed by Mr Maitland, to say that publicising Doyles Creek-funded scholarships would be a priority.
But a week later, and for the rest of 2010, the university resisted publicity because of the ‘‘sensitivity’’ of its association with Doyles Creek, and despite receiving $250,000 from NuCoal in the first year of a four-year, $1million agreement.
The university also received $250,000 from the Department of Primary Industries in the first year of a matching $1million agreement, authorised by Ian Macdonald, for an Institute for Frontier Geoscience.
By March 29, 2010 NuCoal chief executive Glen Lewis was told the university’s public relations department wanted to hold publicity about the scholarships until after Easter, ‘‘once the [media] rush has quietened down’’.
Mr Lewis replied that he wanted a media release ‘‘as soon as possible after Easter’’.
On April 16, 2010, Mr Lewis emailed the university’s public relations department: ‘‘How are you going with the press release for scholarships? Keen to get something out next week if possible.’’
An email from the university’s communications department to University of Newcastle Foundation chief executive Louise O’Connell on April 19, 2010, noted Mr Lewis’s request and concluded: ‘‘We can’t put them off much longer.’’
By August 2010 Doyles Creek’s liaison with the university, Kenny Barry, complained about the approach, ‘‘particularly the holding off of the releases for fear of bad publicity for the university’’.
A few weeks later Ms O’Connell emailed Ms Rodgers-McPhee after a senior university employee said he had been ‘‘on the receiving end of Kenny Barry’s dissatisfaction with the resistance to media releases’’.
‘‘Perhaps another discussion with Kenny needs to occur (if only to let him vent),’’ Ms O’Connell wrote.
Interest in the scholarships was eventually described as ‘‘disappointing’’.
University director for the Institute for Energy and Resources, Alan Broadfoot, said there was ‘‘trouble with the start-up’’ of the scholarships because of the negative publicity about Doyles Creek, but ‘‘we were never party to what was happening externally’’.
‘‘Would we have another position if we knew then what we know now? Probably,’’ he said.
The university was happy with the contribution the relationship had made and the ICAC hearing next year was ‘‘a case of working through it as it unfolds’’.