NSW Resources Minister Don Harwin has called for a full briefing on corruption allegations raised by former Department of Planning mining unit manager Rebecca Connor as parliament considers a motion today to refer the matter to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Mr Harwin declined to answer questions about Ms Connor’s allegation that she was sacked in May despite raising corruption allegations involving mining applications in 2017, and was suspended a day after making a protected disclosure to a senior department employee in November, 2017.
Mr Harwin told parliament he had called for a full briefing from Department of Planning secretary Carolyn McNally on the issues raised by Ms Connor in the Newcastle Herald and in department documents and emails. They include a department governance manager’s concern about “the conflict of interest and personal relationships that continue to exist between current employees… and the mining industry, especially mining agents”.
Labor’s resources spokesman Adam Searle challenged Mr Harwin over unanswered questions about mining company Ridgelands’ undisclosed $5 million community fund and the department’s role in attempts to reduce it to $500,000, and called on the minister to refer the matters to ICAC.
“Given the handling of the Ridgelands Resources community fund within the Department of Planning and your refusal to answer questions connected to Deputy Secretary Kylie Hargreaves’ departure, and now reports of serious allegations of a persisting culture of corruption within the department, will you now refer these matters to the ICAC?” he said.
Given the handling of the Ridgelands Resources community fund within the Department of Planning and your refusal to answer questions connected to Deputy Secretary Kylie Hargreaves’ departure, and now reports of serious allegations of a persisting culture of corruption within the department, will you now refer these matters to the ICAC?Labor's resources spokesman Adam Searle.
Greens environment spokesperson Cate Faehrmann gave notice on Tuesday that she would move for the referral in the Upper House today. If passed in both houses of parliament it would require the ICAC to investigate and report on the allegations, including that staff modified mining files, leaked confidential information to mining companies and had inappropriate contact with mining agents who previously worked for the department.
Minutes of a final show cause meeting in April between Ms Connor, her union representative and two senior department employees show she repeated her corruption allegations and stated there was a “witch hunt” against her.
The meeting was held to allow Ms Connor to make final submissions before acting on a recommendation that she be sacked.
Asked at the meeting if she had made a protected disclosure under the Protected Interest Disclosure Act, Ms Connor said that at the time she raised matters she was not given any assistance by senior management to report her allegations and was given no information about the Act.
Ms Connor said she was denied a secondment to another part of the department after “discovering matters of corruption”.
Her union representative from the Public Service Association said the three sustained allegations against Ms Connor were “not the most severe allegations” he had seen. Ms Connor was found to have made “aggressive” comments about another department employee, to have failed to report a male friend’s emailed naked photo, and to have declared, but failed to fully disclose, her relationship with a woman she employed.
Lock the Gate Alliance and Hunter Central Rivers Alliance, representing 40 community groups, called for an independent inquiry into the relationship between the NSW Department of Planning and the mining industry.
Lock the Gate’s Carmel Flint said the allegations needed to be referred to ICAC because they affected community confidence in the NSW Government and its management of mining.
“We’d like to see the processing of mining approvals and titles in NSW suspended until this matter has been fully addressed and the allegations investigated in detail,” she said.
Hunter Central Rivers Alliance member Robert McLaughlin said the “revolving door” between the mining industry and the Planning Department had been a cause of deep concern for many in the community.
”There are many instances where previous employees of the mining industry are now
working for the Department of Planning on mining approvals. Likewise there are examples where employees of the department have moved directly into jobs with mining companies,” Mr McLaughlin said.
Ms Connor’s allegations “have the ring of truth to anyone in the Hunter unfortunate enough to live near a coal mine”, Alliance member Judith Leslie said.