The NSW ICAC has withheld vital information on corruption within the Perrottet Government leading up to the State Election. Anthony Klan reports.
NEW SOUTH WALES PREMIER Dominic Perrottet’s implication in one of the decade’s biggest political scandals will likely remain hidden from most voters until at least after the March State Election thanks to a bureaucratic “delay”.
Perrottet’s predecessor, Gladys Berejiklian, resigned as NSW Premier in October 2021 after spectacular revelations that she was a key focus of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) probe, Operation Keppel.
Yet, as revealed, it was Perrottet who personally – and illegally – approved the $5.5 million gun club grant at the heart of the scandal.
That information has been kept from the public; the ICAC has failed to mention it entirely and the nation’s major media outlets have failed to cover the story.
If the ICAC has probed Perrottet in secret – which experts say is likely, given the circumstances – that will not be known publicly until after it releases its findings, if at all.
Last week, the ICAC announced Operation Keppel’s findings would now almost certainly not be delivered until at least 1 April – a week after the 25 March Election.
It is the third time Operation Keppel has been delayed.
The latest delay means much of the NSW electorate will likely go to the polls unaware that the NSW Premier – who they are being asked to elect for another four years – is directly tied to the scandal that felled his predecessor.
Perrottet’s office has confirmed that it was Perrottet, as NSW Treasurer, who personally signed off on the $5.5 million grant to the Wagga Wagga-based Australian Clay Target Association.
The Klaxon published the exposé in October 2021 — yet no major media outlets covered the news.
In even more remarkable revelations – which Perrottet does not deny – his approving the grant was illegal.
Following the revelations, the NSW Labor Opposition in September put detailed questions to Perrottet in Parliament about his having approved the grant and it being illegal for him to have done so.
The Premier refused to answer the questions.
The $5.5 million grant was for a new “function centre” and clubhouse at the Australian Clay Target Association, in Wagga Wagga NSW.
The grant is central to Operation Keppel because it was made after heavy lobbying by Daryl Maguire, the former NSW MP for Wagga Wagga.
The grant was made in 2017 when Perrottet was NSW Treasurer and Berejiklian was NSW Premier.
It later emerged that at that time, Berejiklian and the since disgraced Maguire had been in a multi-year secret relationship.
The ICAC has heard the $5.5 million grant came from the multi-billion Restart NSW Fund.
As revealed by The Klaxon in detail, the grant was illegal because the types of projects that Restart NSW Fund money can be used for are clearly set out in the Restart NSW Fund Act 2011.
The $5.5 million gun club project meets none of them.
Perrottet’s grant also expressly failed on another front.
The money was disbursed through the “Regional Growth — Environment and Tourism Fund”, a subset of the Restart NSW Fund.
Yet it also failed to meet the Regional Growth — Environment and Tourism Fund criteria, which directly precludes projects that are ‘on private land and/or have exclusive private benefits’.
The $5.5 million project is on private land and has exclusive private benefits.
Leader of the Opposition in the NSW Upper House, Penny Sharpe, put a series of questions to the NSW Premier about the grant in September, including which of the “purposes” of the Restart NSW Fund Act 2011 it met.
‘How [is it] possible that a grant that was not eligible under the Restart NSW Fund Act, nor the guidelines for the Regional Growth Environment and Tourism Fund, nor meet benefit-cost ratio requirements from Infrastructure NSW, was approved?’
After taking the full allowable 21 days to respond, Perrottet answered none of the questions and instead, responded that questions should be ‘directed to the Treasurer’.
That’s despite the current NSW Treasurer, Matt Kean, having only held the position since October 2021 — over four years after Perrottet made the $5.5 million grant.
Remarkably, no major traditional media outlet has covered the story.
“After 12 years in office, the Premier and his ministers are addicted to secrecy and believe that accountability doesn’t apply to them,” Sharpe said.
Perrottet has gone to considerable lengths to prevent the broader public from being aware of his ties to the scandal.
Yet so too — seemingly — has the ICAC.
As part of Operation Keppel, ICAC has conducted two public inquiries questioning 38 people across two years.
They include Berejiklian; numerous NSW MPs, including then NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro; former NSW Premier Mike Baird; current and former agency bosses; and members of the public.
It has published over 500 “exhibits” containing tens of thousands of documents; the “exhibit list” summary alone runs to 33 pages.
The ICAC stressed in its statement last week:
‘...it must be recognised that the report concerns complex matters of law and fact, two public inquiries which proceeded over 30 days, over 2,800 pages of transcript, 516 exhibits comprising approximately 10,600 pages...’
Yet the ICAC did not call Perrottet to give evidence at the public hearings.
And nowhere in the thousands of pages of publicly available exhibits or other documents is he named as having made the $5.5 million gun club grant (or that he did so illegally).
Both the ICAC and Perrottet have repeatedly refused to comment when asked whether Perrottet had been approached to provide evidence.
In its statement last week, the ICAC said it was ‘now unlikely’ that it would release the findings of Operation Keppel until the ‘second quarter’.
That’s despite the ICAC’s Operation Keppel public hearings ending well over a year ago; it having not published a single new document since March last year; and that the employment contract of the temporary Commissioner overseeing the investigation, Ruth McColl SC, initially expired in July last year.
(McColl’s contract was extended in July and again in October.)
Operation Keppel’s latest “delay” has raised concerns of potential political interference.
The delay benefits the Perrottet Government.
It has been mired in rolling corruption scandals in recent years — a fact the public will be reminded of when the report drops, regardless of whether Berejiklian is found to have engaged in wrongdoing (which experts say is unlikely).
Perrottet’s direct ties to the scandal – about which much of the NSW public remains in the dark – presents another major issue.
The ICAC, at its discretion, conducts certain “sensitive” interviews in private.
It also heavily redacts many of the exhibits it publishes online.
Whether Perrottet has been probed — and to what extent — will only be known after the Operation Keppel report is released, if at all.
In the absence of Operation Keppel’s findings – and the failure of major media outlets to report on Perrottet’s ties to the scandal – much of the public is likely to still be in the dark on 25 March.
The Klaxon on Monday put a series of questions to McColl, including whether she or the ICAC had faced any political pressure to hold off releasing Operation Keppel’s findings.
She declined to comment.
Anthony Klan is an investigative journalist and editor of 'The Klaxon'. You can follow him on Twitter @Anthony_Klan. This article was originally published on The Klaxon and has been republished with permission.
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