The federal government’s decision to pay $30 million for a tiny pocket of land later valued at just $3 million threatens to balloon into Parliament’s next big scandal.
The government is accused of “a shocking abuse of public office” and gross incompetence by political opponents, with the affair resurrecting Opposition calls for a federal ICAC to investigate the inflated price.
A blistering report from the Australian National Audit Office raised questions about “ethical standards” of the federal Department of Infrastructure after the purchase of a 12-hectare slice of land referred to as ‘the Leppington Triangle’.
The ANAO accused the department of not properly briefing decision makers on the project, claiming staff “omitted relevant information” that led to the land’s value being vastly inflated.
The department has now launched its own investigation and is probing staff conduct, but Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese wants the government to explain what happened.
“When you have a circumstance where the Morrison government’s pork barrelling has reached airports, then it is proof that pigs really can fly,” he claimed on Tuesday.
Labor is referring to the incident as “airport rorts”, a play on the “sports rorts” affair that was also the subject of a damning ANAO report.
The New Daily understands the issue will become a battlefield over the coming weeks.
Shadow infrastructure minister Catherine King told The New Daily on Monday that “Labor will use the processes of the Parliament” to chase answers.
“Scott Morrison must today, given he is now the Prime Minister, and was Treasurer when this scandalous overpayment was made, explain exactly how this occurred and why it occurred,” Mr Albanese said on Tuesday.
“It’s not enough to pass it back to some junior bureaucrat. Who signed off on this? Who was the minister who signed off? What we know is Scott Morrison was Treasurer when this happened.”
The New Daily contacted Leppington Pastoral Company – the dairy company of billionaire brothers Tony and Ron Perich that owned the land – for its side of the story.
A spokesperson said they “were just taking people’s phone numbers” at this stage and did not respond to a request for comment.
The company has donated to both sides of politics, according to Australian Electoral Commission returns, but the bulk of funds has gone to the Coalition in recent years – $58,800 to the Liberal Party in 2018-19, then $59,000 to the Liberals and $3700 to the Nationals in 2015-16.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher was the minister for urban infrastructure at the time of the 2018 sale.
On Tuesday, he rebuffed questions on the deal, saying the department had “accepted the auditor-general’s recommendations and they’ll be acting on them”.
Current Urban Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge, who came to the portfolio in August 2018 – a month after the department signed the deal for the Leppington Triangle – also distanced himself from the brewing scandal.
Speaking to The New Daily on Monday, he claimed there was “no question of ministerial involvement”.
“It goes to the administrative actions of the department, more than two years ago,” Mr Tudge said.
“The department has agreed to all recommendations in the report. It is also investigating matters of staff conduct identified by the ANAO.”
NSW Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi said the deal reeked of “enormous incompetence”.
“The Prime Minister and his ministers must explain this rotten mess. The buck stops with them,” Senator Faruqi said.
“The federal government is spending billions of dollars on this airport which doesn’t stack up. How much more public money has been paid out improperly?”
Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus called the incident “a shocking abuse of public office” and used the opportunity to dust off the opposition’s long-term support for a national integrity commission to investigate such political deals.
“A powerful, independent national integrity commission would uncover the truth about this deal and hold ministers accountable,” he said.