The Andrews government could not approve the contentious rezoning at the heart of the Casey land scandal once The Sunday Age highlighted possible corruption at Casey in 2018, the anti-corruption commission has heard.
Peter Keogh, chief of staff to Planning Minister Richard Wynne, told the commission on Wednesday that questions raised by The Sunday Age about possible corruption of the Casey Council in its initial support for the rezoning made it impossible for the government to sign off on a planning change.
The land, to the left in this photo, in Cranbourne West that developer John Woodman and his associates tried to get Planning Minister Richard Wynne to rezone for housing.Credit:Joe Armao
His evidence is the first public acknowledgement by a senior government figure that the eventual decision to reject the rezoning, ostensibly justified by concerns about lack of industrial land in the south-east this year, was effectively made two years ago.
Mr Keogh, who has been Mr Wynne’s chief of staff since 2015, also backed greater transparency around the activities of politically-appointed ministerial advisers, acknowledging that the details of meetings with lobbyists pressing for lucrative approvals were regularly not recorded.
The state's Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating allegedly crooked land and other deals in Melbourne’s south-east centred on property developer John Woodman's influence over Casey Council and state Labor and Liberal MPs.
Central to the investigation is the proposed rezoning at Cranbourne West known as C219 which would have generated up to $150 million in profits for Mr Woodman's clients including landowner Leighton.
Planning Minister Richard Wynne.Credit:Darrian Traynor
Despite opposition from its own staff and key government agencies, Casey Council pushed the rezoning from 2015. It was awaiting final approval when The Sunday Age started investigating Mr Woodman’s influence at Casey and with state MPs from mid-2018.
Mr Wynne announced the deferral of the rezoning in October 2018 shortly before the state election and after The Sunday Age revealed serious concerns about Mr Woodman and the role of allegedly corrupt Casey councillors and other councillors he had donated to, in the rezoning process.
Mr Keogh said Mr Wynne had trouble making a decision on the rezoning because it had the support of the council, community and an independent panel on the one hand but was opposed by council and government bureaucrats and agencies on the other.
But he said a “reset” was necessary “in light of the [Sunday Age] revelations” in October 2018.
“The article and revelations were pretty breathtaking.”
"The Age’s scrutiny of planning decisions has been going on forever and it’s a good thing. The political consequence of doing the wrong thing is enormous.”
Mr Keogh’s evidence appears at odds with the reasoning given by Mr Wynne for the eventual rejection of the rezoning in April this year in the wake of damning evidence before IBAC.
At the time Mr Wynne continued to insist the entire rezoning process was “appropriate” and that his rejection of it was because a review had revealed a lack of industrial land in the city’s south-east.
Attention had been drawn to Mr Keogh’s role in the Casey saga. Internal emails between Mr Woodman and his team show lobbyist Phil Staindl reported he had struck an agreement with Mr Keogh about "protocols for back-channel communication".
But Mr Keogh rejected this and said Mr Staindl was free to talk to the minister’s office. "I never agreed to a back channel. I’m happy to take his calls,” Mr Keogh told the hearing.
IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich, QC, pressed Mr Keogh on the workings of the minister’s office noting a lack of public transparency and accountability.
“At present there isn’t any [transparency]”, Mr Redlich said. Mr Keogh initially disagreed, pointing out that the minister could be asked about his decisions in Parliament. “It’s perhaps not to the standard you would like but there is some transparency there,” he said.
Under further questioning Mr Keogh said he “accepted the broad principle” of the need for greater transparency for advisers.
Asked if his work as an adviser was covered by a code of conduct he said he was unsure. “I would have to check my employment documents,” he told the hearing.
He also accepted lobbyists had better access to the minister’s office than average citizens.
“They’re more likely to get through and have a conversation with an adviser or myself than someone who doesn't know how planning decisions are made,” said Mr Keogh.
Asked about Mr Wynne’s role in fundraising, Mr Keogh said the Planning Minister, the MP for the state seat of Richmond, would attend at least three fundraisers a year for Labor’s Progressive Business fundraising arm, but that Mr Wynne was a “reluctant participant” in those events.
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