As the ICAC investigation into Gladys Berejiklian is extended, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet – who actually made the $5.5 million grant at the heart of the scandal – is ducking for cover. Anthony Klan reports.
Dominic Perrottet’s political future is under a cloud with the NSW Premier refusing to stand by the legality of a $5.5 million grant he made following an “intervention” by Gladys Berejiklian and heavy lobbying by Daryl Maguire.
The grant, for a new clubhouse and “convention centre” at a Wagga Wagga gun club, is the focus of the ongoing NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) probe which last year felled Berejiklian as NSW Premier.
Just months out from a state election tipped to be fought on political integrity, Perrottet has formally refused to respond to detailed parliamentary questions about his ties to the scandal – despite revelations he made the $5.5m grant and that it was illegal under state legislation.
“After 12 years in office, the Premier and his ministers are addicted to secrecy and believe that accountability doesn’t apply to them,” said Penny Sharpe, leader of the Opposition in the NSW upper house.
Perrottet approved the $5.5m grant to the Australian Clay Targets Association in highly unusual circumstances in 2017, when he was Treasurer and Berejiklian was Premier.
The grant had been heavily pursued by then Wagga MP Daryl Maguire who, it later, emerged, had been in a secret relationship with Berejiklian at the time.
“After 12 years in office, the Premier and his ministers are addicted to secrecy and believe that accountability doesn’t apply to them” – Penny Sharpe
ICAC launched Operation Keppel in 2020, naming Maguire as under investigation. In October last year it announced Berejiklian was also under investigation, prompting her voluntary resignation as NSW Premier.
The NSW Opposition locked-on to Perrottet’s involvement in the scandal after The Klaxon revealed Perrottet’s $5.5m grant was expressly illegal as it did not meet the requirements of the Restart NSW Fund Act.
The Klaxon had earlier exclusively revealed it was Perrottet, as NSW Treasurer, who had made the grant.
Following the latest expose, Sharpe put a series of detailed questions to Perrottet, including why he had approved the $5.5m grant despite it being “not eligible under the Restart NSW Fund Act”.
Sharpe also asked why Perrottet had approved the grant when it failed to meet the requirements of the Regional Growth, Tourism and Environment Fund (RGTEF), which says it won’t fund projects that “are on private land” or “have exclusive benefits”.
(The $5.5m project is on private land and has exclusive benefits.)
Perrottet took the maximum 21 days to respond to the parliamentary questions – and then refused to answer them, instead pointing to his Treasurer, Matt Kean, and to Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW, Paul Toole.
“Questions in relation to the Restart NSW Funding Act should be directed to the Treasurer,” the response said.
“Questions in relation to the Regional Growth Environment and Tourism Fund should be directed to the Minster for Regional NSW”.
That’s despite Kean not becoming NSW Treasurer – and Toole not becoming Minister for Regional NSW – until October last year: over four years after Perrottet made the $5.5m grant.
(The Minister for Regional NSW at the time of the grant was John Barilaro. Barilaro resigned from government three days after Berejiklian, on October 4 last year, citing vague personal reasons.)
“Perrottet made the grant more than four years before Kean and Toole started the roles”
The parliamentary snub highlighted the NSW Government’s accountability failures and ongoing culture of “secrecy”, said Sharpe.
“These answers thumb their nose at the community who are sick to their stomachs about pork barrelling and favours for mates,” Sharpe exclusively told The Klaxon.
“These answers thumb their nose at the community who are sick to their stomachs about pork barrelling and favours for mates” – Penny Sharpe
The mounting pressure on Perrottet over the grant comes as the ICAC late last month announced it had extended its employment of assistant commissioner Ruth McColl SC, who is overseeing Operation Keppel.
McColl had been due to depart on October 31.
“Ms McColl’s services are required for the purpose of her finalising the Operation Keppel report, including participating in the review and editing process of that report,” the ICAC said.
Operation Keppel is investigating the $5.5m gun club grant as well as a funding proposal connected to the Riverina Conservatorium of Music, also in Wagga Wagga.
Berejiklian is being investigated over whether she engaged in a “breach of public trust” in relation to either project, given her “personal relationship” with Maguire, which ran from at least 2015 until 2020.
The ICAC has heard the $5.5m gun club grant was approved despite senior NSW Government officials formally warning it was “suss” and that it should not be granted; the NSW Office of Sport wanting no involvement in the project; and the NSW Department of Infrastructure describing it as “unusual” and warning that grants had to be for “public infrastructure” and not “private assets on private land”.
The grant was for private assets on private land.
ICAC has said it was focused on funding “promised and/or awarded” to the gun club “in 2016/2017”.
Perrottet awarded the gun club grant on August 27, 2017.
It came from the Regional Growth, Environment and Tourism Fund (RGTEF), one of numerous sub-fund of the umbrella Restart NSW Fund.
Feb 2017 – Perrottet approves $300m fund, the RGTEF
Aug 2017 – Perrottet awards $5.5m grant from RGTEF
Oct 2020 – Berejiklian, Maguire relationship revealed
That was after earlier plans to have the funding come from the NSW Office of Sport were rejected by that department.
The Restart NSW Fund was created in 2011 to house funds from the NSW Government’s sale of “poles and wires” electricity infrastructure.
It is governed by the Restart NSW Fund Act 2011, which expressly stipulates the types of infrastructure projects that fund money can legally be used for.
Allowable projects include transport and roads infrastructure, health and public services infrastructure, infrastructure in areas “affected by mining operations” and infrastructure “required for the economic competitiveness of the State”.
As previously revealed in detail, the gun club grant meets none of these.
“How it is possible that a grant that was not eligible under the Restart NSW Fund Act, nor the guidelines for the RGTEF, nor meet benefit-cost ratio requirements from Infrastructure NSW, was approved?” – Penny Sharpe
Sharpe put four direct questions to Perrottet in the Legislative Assembly (the NSW upper house).
She asked: which of the “purposes” of the Restart Fund Act the grant satisfied; what criteria Perrottet had “used to sign off on the $5.5m grant”, given the RGTEF; “expressly stated that projects were not eligible” if they were “on private land and/or have exclusive private benefits”; and, whether Infrastructure NSW had provided Perrottet with information about their concerns, given the department had “raised concerns regarding the grant” because it was “not on public land” and “did not provide value for money”.
“Could the Minister please advise how it is 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?” Sharpe asked.
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