NSW Department of Planning Secretary Carolyn McNally has referred corruption allegations by sacked department whistleblower Rebecca Connor to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
The referral was confirmed by the department on Wednesday as Resources Minister Don Harwin failed to respond to questions in NSW Parliament about planning staff’s role in the secret Ridgelands mining company $5 million community fund, and its reduction to $500,000.
Mr Harwin later confirmed the ICAC referral, telling Parliament it was “absolutely vital for any government to demonstrate their commitment to address any allegations that could undermine public confidence in their work in an open and transparent manner”.
“I indicated yesterday to the House that I would be seeking a full briefing because this government does not take the allegations that were raised in the media lightly at all, and we have acted quickly to address them,” Mr Harwin said.
“The Secretary of the Department of Planning has informed me she has referred the allegations to the ICAC. I support the referral.”
In the Newcastle Herald on Tuesday Ms Connor, the former mining titles operations manager based at Maitland, alleged serious conflicts of interest between department staff and the mining industry; of staff modifying mining files; the alleged leaking of confidential information by staff to mining companies; meetings between department staff and mining representatives they had previously worked with, and direct appeals by mining agents to department employees to benefit industry clients.
Labor MP and resources spokesperson Adam Searle and Greens MP and planning spokesperson David Shoebridge called for a commission of inquiry into the relationship between the department and the mining industry.
Mr Searle called for the allegations to be referred to the ICAC on Tuesday, and said the government also needed to ensure there is “a full audit of the dysfunction in the mining titles unit”.
A consultant’s investigation report for the department in March noted a “change management process” from 2016, which required Ms Connor to “refresh” up to 60 per cent of staff in the mining titles area by removing them from the department or transferring them.
This led to “significant disruption” and contributed to “a long history of conflict between many of the staff of titles services and also between the various business units”, the investigation report found.
“The material we have seen is wholly unacceptable and must be addressed immediately,” Mr Searle said.
He continued to question Mr Harwin on the Ridgelands community fund case, after Mr Harwin said he was still considering the Hong Kong-based company’s application to renew its licence, despite facing prosecution for allegedly breaching a consent condition requiring it to establish the $5 million community fund within the five years of its exploration licence.
Mr Searle asked Mr Harwin in Parliament whether his consideration of the renewal application would include “looking at the actions of his departmental staff and whether any of them sought to reduce the obligation of Ridgelands from $5 million to $500,000-”.
“It’s a straight question, he should give a straight answer, instead of fencing,” Mr Searle said.
Mr Shoebridge said matters raised by Ms Connor showed “gross negligence or worse, and neither is flattering for the department”.
“We repeat our call for a special commission of inquiry to review this sorry history of planning approvals for mines in this state,” he said.