Qld LNP's dodgy donations for deals: Move on, nothing to see here

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Even with the NSW Liberal Party losing MPs daily from revelations of dodgy donation, suspicious donations in Queensland are being shrugged off by Queensland's unaccountable LNP Newman Government. Alex McKean and Stephen Keim SC report.

‘They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind’ (Hosea 8:7)

THERE HAVE BEEN REVELATIONS, this week, of another cash for legislation deal involving the Newman Government. But, like those that have gone before, it has just been shrugged off by those involved.

The Australian Financial Review has revealed that the largest single donor to the Queensland LNP was granted approval to dredge his Airlie Beach marina, close to the Great Barrier Reef, a week after making a donation of $150,000.

Billionaire Paul Darrouzet, a former mining magnate who owns the Abell Point marina in Airlie Beach, made the donation in two installments through his privately owned investment company. He has yet to individually declare the payments to the Electoral Commission.

A week after the payments were made, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection amended the environmental authority relating to the marina, allowing the dredging of 100,000 to 200,000 cubic metres of material.

But Andrew Powell MP, the Queensland Environment Minister, is reported to have strongly denied any link between the donation and the dredging approval, saying it was

"... an outrageous link to be making."

(Image via afr.com)

This is the latest in a string of allegations about apparent cash for legislation deals under the Newman regime that have garnered a headline or two before disappearing back into the white noise.

Earlier this month, reports emerged that the company which took over court transcription services in Queensland, Auscript, had made donations to the LNP. Since Auscript had won the contract, the costs to users of the courts had increased very significantly.

In June 2014, the ABC broke the story that Karreman Quarries had donated $75,000 to the Queensland LNP coffers and then avoided prosecution for unlawful sand and gravel extraction when a retrospective legislative amendment was quietly passed by the Government.

Despite the investigating body finding evidence to support a prosecution of Karreman Quarries, shortly after a meeting with the Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, legislation was passed which, retrospectively, declared Karreman’s activities to be legal, and

'... to always have been legal.'

In May 2014, it was shown that Beyond Billabong had donated $5,500 to the LNP a week after being awarded a lucrative contract to run a boot camp near Ingham. Beyond Billabong won the tender despite its bid being twice that of rival bidders and the Attorney-General’s Department recommending a cheaper bidder.

Possibly the most serious allegations have been those involving Sibelco, the Belgian company conducting sand-mining on Stradbroke Island. Sibelco made an undisclosed donation of $90,000 to fund a misleading letter-writing campaign directed at Premier Newman’s electorate of Ashgrove in 2012.

Following the donation, the Newman Government passed legislation, apparently drafted by Sibelco. That legislation is intended to enable an extension of sand mining leases on Stradbroke Island from 2019 until 2035, which is likely to enrich Sibelco by $1.5 billion.

The ALP has referred Sibelco to the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) for investigation.

There are, however, indications that the CCC may be ill-equipped to get to the heart of the controversies that Government spokespeople so easily and blithely put behind them.

For one, the CCC has an almost permanent Acting Chair, Dr Ken Levy, an appointee of the Newman Government. Even the Premier could not shrug off another by-election result and has conceded the Chair of the CCC should be a bipartisan appointment made with support of the Opposition.

In the meantime, Dr Levy remains under investigation by the Police Commissioner regarding allegations he misled Parliament. Not a great set of circumstances to lead rigorous investigations to get to the heart of allegations of favoured treatment to the LNP donors.

Dr Levy also gave evidence to a Parliamentary Committee, on 13 November 2013, that he had not been critical of the Newman Government in his role as Acting Chair because he was concerned the Government would ‘get rid of the CMC’ if he did so. Again, not a situation conducive to fearlessness in the investigator.

Thirdly, before all this, in October 2011, the Crime and Misconduct Commission had its budget slashed by the Attorney-General. This move came at a time when Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie was criticising plans the CMC had to conduct a review of political donations in Queensland.

Mr Bleijie questioned the CMC using "valuable resources" to conduct a review of political donations which he said had "not been an issue". Mr Bleijie added that the CMC needed to get its "priorities right".

To help with those priorities, when Mr Bleijie introduced the legislation which would change the CMC into the CCC and, at the same time, would make significant changes to the structure of the corruption watchdog, he included provisions requiring the CCC to seek approval from the Attorney-General before it exercised its research functions. Now, the Attorney can set some at least of those priorities.

When Dr Chris Davis resigned from the Parliament in May 2014, forcing the Stafford by-election, he said that his sacking from the LNP was due to his criticism of the changes to political donations laws. Dr Davis indicated he had "stood on some powerful toes" and pointed to the ICAC proceedings in NSW as an example of the powerful interests involved in politics.

Dr Davis made the observation that:

"You don't make an investment in business unless you make a return on it."

He added that it would be naïve to suggest the "political gene pool" changed at the boundary marked by the Tweed River.

Despite his new found resolve to turn over a new leaf, Mr Newman’s resolve does not include the controversial decision to increase the cap on reportable political donations from $1,000 to $12,400. The Premier has steadfastly refused to entertain Opposition calls to repeal the higher caps and to declare all of the donations received by the LNP in the "brown paper bag" period since the caps were lifted.

Ironically, but not unexpectedly, it has been reported that the LNP has amassed a vast war-chest in political donations since the last election, totalling more than $30 million — twice the figure donated to the ALP. Doubtless, the LNP will be hoping these funds can turn the tide of unpopularity between now and the State election, due by March 2015.

What an interesting nine months we face.

Despite the fact that interesting coincidences of donations followed by favourable decisions seem to cause no ripples in Government hearts, the voters in by-elections have been concerned about something the Government has been doing. With no likelihood of the CCC conducting public hearings to get to the bottom of things, perhaps the flood of money into slick, snappy TV ads will win back the hearts and minds of voters after all.

Then again, sometimes voters can see a pattern through the noise.

Sometimes, they can see the pig through the lipstick.

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