University dragged into Doyles scandal

THE former resources minister, Ian Macdonald, was involved in discussions with the University of Newcastle in connection to the Doyles Creek Mining venture from the second half of 2007, the state’s corruption watchdog has heard.

The then minister was also ‘‘courting’’ Professor Ian Plimer to head up a new school of geosciences at the University of Newcastle – a position that was not announced until 2009.

The university was mentioned yesterday during the start of the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s latest public hearings into allegations involving Mr Macdonald.

This time, it is examining his decision to award without a tender process an exploration licence over land near Jerrys Plains to Doyles Creek Mining in late 2008, an enterprise that involved his close friend and former union official, John Maitland, and other ‘‘Newcastle entrepreneurs’’.

The project was promoted as a ‘‘training mine’’ but was really a ‘‘mining mine’’, counsel assisting the commission, Peter Braham, SC, said. 

The only expert advice Mr Macdonald received on the project was from Professor Plimer, who was at a meeting with Mr Maitland and Mr Macdonald in November 2007, when the idea of having university students train in the proposed mine was floated.

‘‘Professor Plimer gave unambiguous advice,’’ Mr Braham said.

‘‘He told Ian Macdonald and John Maitland that the idea was ‘absolute madness’, that it was an unsafe venture for university students and that he would be ‘absolutely terrified to have students underground in a long wall mine being trained’.’’

Doyles Creek and the university would later sign an agreement to receive $1million over four years to establish the NSW Institute for Frontier Geoscience.

The university signed a separate agreement with the then NSW Department of Primary Industries, headed by Mr Macdonald, to receive another $1million over four years towards the institute.

The ICAC heard yesterday that in the second half of 2007, Doyles Creek tried to build community, political and industry support for its proposal.

‘‘The minister was kept abreast of developments and became involved in discussions with the University of Newcastle and Doyles Creek Mining,’’ Mr Braham said.

‘‘As we shall see, it is from this time on that Mr Macdonald appears to take on the role of proponent or an advocate for the Doyles Creek mine rather than that of an independent arbiter of the public interest.’’

Mr Braham also noted strong opposition to the project from the community and the NSW Minerals Council, which resisted pressure from Mr Macdonald to back the proposal.  

The largest landholder in the area, the renowned Coolmore stud, was ‘‘surprisingly’’ not consulted about the proposal, Mr Braham said.