Whistle-blower Simone Marsh's new exposé: the corrupt birth of the Queensland gas industry

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Courageous whistle-blower, Simone Marsh, shines a further spotlight into the murky and corrupt relationship between the Queensland gas industry and the politicians who are supposed to serve the interests of the public.

PETER GARRETT'S recent memoir Big Blue Sky has offered further insight into the entry of the Queensland CSG-LNG export industry in 2010.

Garrett, who at that time was the federal environment minister, had responsibility for decisions under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC). Referring to the British Gas (QGC) and Santos CSG-LNG projects, Garrett states that one of his final decisions was actually a non-decision.

According to Garrett, despite unambiguous advice from Geosciences Australia regarding inadequate assessment of groundwater impacts on the Great Artesian Basin, intense pressure was applied. Federal treasurer Wayne Swan and resources minister Martin Ferguson had been "acutely focused on the decision". 

In Beijing on 24 March 2010, Ferguson witnessed the signing of the sales contract between the BG Group chief executive, Frank Chapman (now Sir Frank), and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) president, Fu Chengyu. Other witnesses at the ceremony included the Duke of York, Prince Andrew and the Vice Minister of China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), Lui Qi. Days earlier, on 12 March 2010, BG Group’s Frank Chapman, Catherine Tanna and Rob Millhouse had been invited guests of Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser and Deputy Premier Paul Lucas — at the government box at Suncorp stadium in Brisbane. Queensland’s Under-Treasurer, Gerard Bradley, and wife Imelda Bradley (Director of Special Projects at the Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney General) were also invited. Paul Lucas later (February 2011) moved into the position of Attorney-General of Queensland.

In his memoir, Garrett questions whether the Federal Attorney-General’s department had been monitoring his activities during 2010. Not long after Garrett’s "non-decision", he was moved out of the environment portfolio. Garrett had suspected that Swan wanted him out. Tony Burke was moved into the portfolio in Julia Gillard’s second ministry. Within a matter of weeks (22 October 2010), Burke approved the first two east coast CSG-LNG projects. Five months later (March 2011) Wayne Swan appointed BG Group’s Catherine Tanna to the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Garrett’s memoir adds weight to evidence given by me to a federal Senate Inquiry in 2014. Amongst one of several documents initially redacted by certain members of the Senate Select Committee, is an email sent to Queensland treasurer Andrew Fraser on 12 May 2010. The one-page email from Ian Fletcher, then Queensland director-general of the department responsible for issuing petroleum permits, outlines the status of QGC’s environmental impact assessment.

Whistleblower Simone Marsh (Image via ABC 'Inside Business')

According to Fletcher, QGC’s David Maxwell claimed QGC were unable to provide "detailed engineering data for construction”. Presumably the missing detail would have shown the location of gas field infrastructure. Hence, the gas company had a major legal problem, as the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (QLD) required location information in order to undertake environmental impact assessments and approval decisions.

In fact, many elements were missing, including baseline studies describing existing environmental values (another legal requirement); however these were not mentioned in Fletcher’s email. Multiple CSG-LNG companies were lining up for approvals in the same leaky boats.

QGC’s David Maxwell had been an invited guest of Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser at the government box at the stadium a few months earlier (19 September 2009).

Fletcher outlines QGC’s proposal to appear in front of an LNG Committee to explain its position (i.e. problems following legal requirements) and suggests the proposal represents 'a degree of constitutional innovation'. Fletcher cautions: 'The LNG Committee as a Court of Star Chamber?'

The Coordinator-General forwarded Fletcher’s email to his deputies and assistant. The Assistant Coordinator-General forwarded the email onto my supervisors with the warning: ‘Under pressure!’

Santos’s Rick Wilkinson (whom later moved across to industry group, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association - APPEA) and Santos’ James Purtill (whom has now returned to Queensland Government – as director general of  the Department of Natural Resources and Mines (DNRM) – from where he came) were invited guests of Treasurer Andrew Fraser at the government box at the stadium on 14 May 2010, i.e. two days after the "constitutional innovation" email. The Queensland Law Society President was also invited.

Within days of Fletcher’s email (and presumably after QGC’s presentation to the LNG Committee), I was instructed to finalise sections of the Coordinator-General’s report for the Santos and QGC projects. I was not permitted to speak with the Coordinator-General, and draft text was altered and deleted without consultation. The Coordinator-General’s final conditions enabled gas field information to be submitted prior to construction, i.e. after the legislated assessment process. The rule of law had been thrown out on George Street.

People and events surrounding CSG appear to exist in a twilight zone. Ian Fletcher’s intriguing work history includes high-level British government roles. Fletcher worked as a director at UK Trade and Investment, where he worked with the Duke of York. The timing of his Queensland appointment is fascinating, coincidentally synchronising with BG Group entry. By late 2011, Fletcher had departed Queensland, to head the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) i.e. New Zealand’s spy agency.

Queensland executive officers copied into Fletcher's constitutional innovation email:

Colin Jensen — Coordinator-General and Director-General of the Department of Infrastructure and Planning. Jensen resigned after signing off the QGC project and was appointed to a lucrative position as CEO of Brisbane City Council. Campbell Newman was Lord Mayor at the time.

John Bradley — Director-General of the environment department and subsequently Director-General of Premier and Cabinet. Bradley later received a substantial payout (approximately $1M) from the Newman government and became CEO of the Energy Networks Association - the national lobby group for gas and electricity transmitters.

Mal Hellmuth — General Manager LNG Industry Unit within Ian Fletcher’s department (DEEDI).

Dan Hunt — Associate Director-General of Fletcher’s department (DEEDI), was later appointed by the Newman government as Director-General of the Department of Energy and Water Supply.

Mark Bermingham — Deputy Director-General of Fletcher’s department (DEEDI) later offered another position by the Newman government.

It is likely the Under-Treasurer, Gerard Bradley, received a copy of Fletcher’s email. Gerard Bradley later received a substantial payout (approximately $706K) from the Newman government, and was subsequently appointed, by the Newman government, as Chairman of Queensland Treasury Corporation — a government owned corporation. Gerard Bradley’s wife, Imelda Bradley remained within the Department of Justice and Attorney-General (Queensland).

So the story of the setting up of the Queensland CSG/LNG industry is somewhat like former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s refusal to prove he has renounced his British citizenship before running as an MP, leaving us still unable to learn if he was even legally able to become an MP let alone prime minister.

Similarly here, under time pressure, senior bureaucrats and politicians pulled strings and shifted guidelines and rules to get the industry in place before the “drop dead” date it was allowed.

Thus, the Queensland gas industry was set up in corrupt fashion, and continues to operate in exactly that fashion to this day.

Simone Marsh was a former analyst with the Queensland Co-ordinator General, whose role included authoring a report on the environmental effects of the proposed LNG industry. Following the filing of the report in June 2010, she walked out of her job and was not heard of again in the media until she testified at the Queensland government parliamentary inquiry into Queensland government administration of Commonwealth government affairs in November last year.

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Whistle-blower Simone Marsh's new exposé: the corrupt birth of the Queensland gas industry

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