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Queensland's National Party $52.5 million land scandal

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The land in the heart of Brisbane is now the site for the QEII Courts of Law (Image by Dan Jensen)

In the fina days of Queensland National Party' Government, a plot of land in the Brisbane CBD was purchased by the Queensland Government for a price far above its worth, writes Steve Bishop.

SECRET QUEENSLAND CABINET documents to be unveiled at the end of next month under the 30-year rule will reveal how the last tainted act of the corrupt National Party Government unfolded in the four weeks before it was kicked out on 2 December 1989.

Queensland’s mortally-wounded Government, exposed by the two-year Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption, decided to spend $52.5 million buying a vacant plot of land in Brisbane CBD which its own Valuer-General had officially valued at only $34 million.

The documents will show that it was a week after Premier Russell Cooper had called a general election on 23 October that Cabinet decided to buy the land.

In the rush to complete the purchase, the taxpayers’ $52.5 million was irrevocably gone two days before electors booted out the Nationals in a landslide win for Labor.

A sales brochure picture of Queensland Place, the vacant block purchased by the National Party for $52.5 million (Image supplied)

The urgency of the purchase becomes all the more inexplicable in that the land then remained empty, apart from being used as a car park, for many years (Hansard p.11514). Were CBD property prices rising steeply at the time, suggesting the Government could be securing a bargain?

Far from it. A trawl through newspapers shows The Courier-Mail reporting on 25 August 1989 that real estate agents were pessimistic about being able to sell any of the large development sites in the CBD such as Queensland Place.

An agent was quoted saying:

“Realistically, I don’t think we can sell any. The market is too quiet.”

Former Premier Mike Ahern confirmed to me that the purchase of Queensland Place had not been any sort of priority on his agenda while Premier up to 22 September that year and that he had vigorously rejected a request from National Party President Sir Robert Sparkes to buy the land.

Ahern said:

People thought it was Joh who was the strong man in the National Party but it was Sparkes.

 

He had been made President for life and wielded enormous power. He was also very eloquent.

 

I had other disagreements with him but he was furious about my decision not to buy Queensland Place.

It led to what Ahern described as a “power play” by Sparkes.

“He rounded them [National Party MPs] up at the Parkroyal Hotel and got the numbers to take the leadership away from me.”

Federal MP Bob Katter, a minister in the Ahern Government, told me that he and two other senior National Party MPs conspired to topple Ahern and that Sparkes had played no role.

This echoes what The Courier-Mail of 22 September 1989 reported Katter saying at the time.

But The Courier-Mail had reported the previous day:

The latest leadership move was started yesterday by National Party president Sir Robert Sparkes, who telephoned Mr Ahern and asked him to resign… Sir Robert said the best interests of the party would be served by holding an urgent meeting of the parliamentary wing.

Ahern, seen as a reformist Premier who had vowed to implement the recommendations of the Fitzgerald Inquiry “lock, stock and barrel”, was replaced as Premier by Cooper on 25 September.

A Cabinet Submission from Minister for Works Jim Randell on 23 October, the day the election was called, recommended negotiations be initiated with Seymour Developments Pty Ltd to buy Queensland Place for not more than $60 million.

On 27 October, Randell produced a cabinet submission saying:

‘…negotiations produced a written offer to sell the property to Government for an amount of $52.5 million subject to the completion of an unconditional contract of sale with settlement being 30th November 1989.’

It was not until 30 October that Cabinet decided to buy the land.

The Valuer-General says on the Queensland Government website:

‘Site value reflects what the land would be expected to sell for in its current condition. It includes any work undertaken, or materials used, to improve the physical nature of the land to prepare it for development…’

The advice continues:

‘Our valuers monitor the property market, recording and analysing urban sales in the local area to determine the current site value of land.’

And on the day the decision was made to spend $52.5 million on the land, it retained an official unimproved valuation of $34 million. There would probably have been a massive backlash if it had been revealed two days before the general election that the Government had just completed the sudden purchase.

So, four days after the Cabinet decision and 20 days before a cheque was written, a story appeared in The Courier-Mail saying the Government had paid $52.5 million for the land, implying this was the completion of a process that had started some time ago rather than the very beginning of the process.

And it was not until 17 November, halfway through the purchase proceedings, that the Valuer-General increased the valuation of the land by more than 50 per cent from $34 million to $52.5 million.

During this period, the National Party funded a massive advertising campaign in a vain effort to remain in power.

Television ads featured dire predictions in voice-overs such as: “Labor even plans to make homosexuality legal,” to which Premier Russell Cooper responded on-screen with a strong-jawed response:

“That’s a floodgate the Nationals will never open.”

The spending was futile with Labor winning by a landslide, 54 seats to 35. It meant that despite the intentions of the caretaker period convention, the new Labor Government was landed with a $52.5 million white elephant.

The current Queensland Government Handbook states:

‘The basic caretaker conventions require a government to avoid implementing major policy initiatives, making appointments of significance or entering into major contracts or undertakings during the caretaker period.’

University of Queensland Professor Graeme Orr, a specialist on electoral law, told me:

“The ultimate rationale is that without the Legislative Assembly there can be no parliamentary scrutiny of the Queensland executive.”

Premier Cooper had announced in the House that 19 October was “the last sitting day of the 45th Parliament” (p.1801). But by convention, the caretaker period did not start on this date, nor when the Premier started the election campaign on 23 October.

The caretaker period does not start until Parliament is dissolved, a date announced by the Governor on the advice of the Premier. And in 1989, the Premier ensured this date was three days after Cabinet’s decision to buy the land.

The dissolution announcement, on page 1813 of the 1989 Hansard reads that on November 2 1989:

“In pursuance of the power and authority vested in me as Governor of the State aforesaid, I, Sir Walter Benjamin Campbell, do, by this my Proclamation, Dissolve the Legislative Assembly of Queensland.”

And it concludes: 

“By Command, RUSSELL COOPER, God Save the Queen!”

In regard to the decisions taken between 23 October and 2 November, the cabinet handbook states:

‘…some care should be exercised in the period between the announcement of the election and the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly.’

It seems the only care taken was to ensure the dissolution date was set after the decision to spend $52.5 million. When the next Parliament sat for the last time on 25 August 1992, it was dissolved on the same day (p.6358).

I asked Mr Cooper why there had been such a rush to buy Queensland Place and he told me:

“I have no idea whatsoever. It’s one of those things that has not stuck in my mind. There is nothing sinister about it.”

Neither could he remember why he had not recommended the dissolution of Parliament until 2 November.

I asked him if he had any memory of Sir Robert pressing him to buy the land:

“No. He tried to push me on a number of issues but I never gave ground to him.”

So what happened to the land?

In July 1990, the new government said it had no immediate plans for it. Ironically, when the land was eventually utilised in this new century, Queensland’s main courts of justice were built on the result of what many may view as a shonky series of decisions.

A final result of the trawl through newspaper reports of the time, the Weekend Australian reported on 12 December 1989:

‘Asked whether he had donated money to the National Party election fund Mr Seymour said it was “a private matter”.’

Mr Kevin Seymour also said the purchase had been astute because the price was about half of that being asked for other CBD land.

He did not respond to my request for an interview.

You can read more by Steve Bishop at stevebishop.net

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