DEPARTMENT of Planning Secretary Carolyn McNally has ordered an independent review of how the state administers mining after sacked former executives blew the whistle on corruption risks, conflicts of interest and allegations of a “be silent or be sacked” culture.
An independent audit will consider if the department’s division of resources and geoscience overseeing mining, and based at Maitland, transparently and efficiently administers mining titles, has sound governance processes and meets legal requirements.
It follows several difficult weeks for the department in which Newcastle Herald reports have led to questions in NSW Parliament and calls for a judicial inquiry, and the referral of corruption allegations to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
It also follows confirmation – after more than a year of department and NSW Government silence – that a mid-level department employee, married to a Hunter coal miner, played a key role in mining company Ridgelands Resources’ attempts to reduce a community fund from $5 million to $500,000, despite the fund being an exploration licence condition of consent. The fund was established under an undisclosed agreement between Ridgelands and the NSW Government.
Ms McNally announced the audit, to be outsourced to a consultant and overseen by Resources Regulator deputy secretary Lee Shearer, a former senior Hunter police officer, in a message to Department of Planning staff on Friday.
It appeared within hours of a Herald article in which a sacked former department professional standards director said her job was abolished only a few months after she made a public interest disclosure, raising serious concerns about a department investigation of complaints against whistleblower mining titles manager Rebecca Connor.
In her message to staff Ms McNally acknowledged “some of the allegations impact on the public’s confidence in the work of the department”.
“The best way to maintain confidence is to ensure a full investigation of matters raised,” she said.
The best way to maintain confidence is to ensure a full investigation of matters raised.Department of Planning Secretary Carolyn McNally.
While Ms McNally told staff that “most of these issues related to matters going back a number of years”, Ms Connor and the former professional standards director were sacked in May after independently raising concerns largely relating to issues in 2017.
They include why the department only advised a farmer, 83, in September that he had lodged a valid agricultural land objection against a NSW mine in 2016 that the department lost, only to find again in October, 2017, shortly after the mine was approved and its licence granted.
The advice to the farmer occurred only weeks after Ms Connor complained to the NSW Ombudsman that she was suspended only days after making a public interest disclosure alleging serious concerns about the department’s handling of the farmer’s case.
The department is reviewing the granting of the licence after Ms Connor argued it had to be revoked and reconsidered because of the farmer’s agricultural land objection.
Ms McNally acknowledged some of the allegations against the department were serious.
“Should the ICAC investigate or make any findings or recommendations, the department will act to implement them,” she said.
She said the independent auditor would carry out a performance audit of procedures and processes in the division of resources and geosciences. It will consider “the organisational framework, systems and processes of the DRG and identify structural, systemic, cultural, skills or other issues that may adversely affect the work of DRG”.
“DRG does important work and I want to ensure the people of NSW know we are acting in their best interests,” she said.
“This process will ensure the community can continue to trust in the work we are doing.”
Ms McNally told staff there were “numerous ways for you to raise any issues of concern”, after acknowledging some issues raised in the Herald included allegations relating to whistleblowing.
She assured staff they could “use the anonymity and protection of a public interest disclosure”.