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Kangaroo Island port 'worthy of approval', parliament told

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Attorney-General Vickie Chapman’s department told her that a $40 million Kangaroo Island port proposal was “on balance worthy of approval” – subject to further conditions being met – before she vetoed the proposal, a senior bureaucrat has told parliament.

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It comes as Premier Steven Marshall today declared he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with his embattled deputy, rejecting Opposition calls for her sacking, and asserting: “I back her 100 per cent.”

As an inquiry Chapman has branded a “witch-hunt” continued today, the committee was fronted by Planning Department Policy and Strategic Assessment manager Robert Kleeman, who told parliament he prepared a minute to facilitate a delegation of authority “in the event the Minister for Planning declared a conflict [of interest]” in the matter.

Chapman, who hails from Kangaroo Island and owns property there, took the Planning portfolio mid-last year, and opted not to recuse herself from deciding the fate of the Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers port plan.

Kleeman said the department had made contingency plans to appoint fellow frontbencher Michelle Lensink as acting minister, but was unsure where the plan had originated.

He said he “received an email” from executive director Sally Smith asking him prepare a minute “on the potential that there might be a conflict”, but “it’s still for then decision-maker to determine”.

“But [we had] to be ready should the decision-maker resolve that issue and require a delegation,” he said.

He said the email was “to say ‘let’s be prepared for this if the minister does resolve’” that she had a conflict.

“We hadn’t formed a view – we had just prepared the information ready,” he said.

Kleeman confirmed he wrote to Chapman saying he had “been advised you may be considering delegating the decision and that your colleague may be appointed as acting minister for Planning and Local Government”.

Asked whether preparing for such an eventuality was unusual, Kleeman said it was in order to facilitate a swift decision should Chapman recuse herself, but that “it’s for the decision-maker to advise as to whether they are [conflicted] or not”.

He said the department’s final advice to the minister was that “on balance the project was worthy of approval, subject to… a whole range of conditions to enable the work to be undertaken”.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Rachael Gray QC asked Kleeman whether his “recommendation in the assessment report was that the [port] proposal be approved with conditions”, to which he responded: “Yes.”

The assessment also considered an independent review by consultancy Wavelength, which identified 20 suitable locations for the port on the island, and shortlisted nine “for more evidence-based analysis”.

That report concluded there was “no single standout site on the island” but that “Smith Bay ranked better than other potential locations and is an appropriate location for a potential port”.

Kleeman said he was listed as the contact officer for a minute sent to Chapman summarising the final assessment report before her decision not to allow the port to proceed.

He agreed that the July 2021 report, the minute and advice from the state planning commission “all recommended, with conditions, the approval of the project”.

“But that doesn’t derogate from the minister’s ability to make a different decision,” he said.

Kleeman also took issue with evidence heard by the inquiry earlier this week in which former KIPT executives suggested engagement with the company from the department dried up after Chapman took over the ministry.

“That’s not my recollection,” he said, suggesting officials were instead busy assessing the project and dealing with machinery of government changes.

“It could be their perspective [that the Government had stopped engaging] but it wasn’t as a result of that… we were just busy doing the work,” he said.

It came as Marshall today rejected calls for Chapman’s resignation, saying she had “been the subject of a very extensive mudslinging exercise”.

“Honestly, the reality is the Attorney-General does an outstanding job in her role as Planning Minister [and is] very well aware of her role in administering the acts under her jurisdiction,” he told reporters.

Asked whether he had spoken to her about a prospective conflict, he said: “I just refer you to my previous answer – I have 100 per cent confidence in Vickie Chapman.”

Marshall said “the reality is every person in SA knows Vickie Chapman is from Kangaroo Island”.

“That doesn’t mean she can’t make the right decision,” he said.

However, Kleeman told the committee he was personally “agnostic about land ownership on the island”.

Asked if he was aware the minister had land holdings there, he said: “I didn’t know that, no.”

Kleeman was asked whether he was surprised by Chapman’s ultimate decision.

“It’s always for the decision-maker to make that call,” he said.

“It was heavily contested, it was finely balanced… at the end of an exhaustive process – and a decision was made.”

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