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ICAC questions delay Festival Plaza inquiry

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Questions about the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption have been raised in relation to a delayed audit of the deal to upgrade the Festival Plaza, but Premier Jay Weatherill today refused to detail what advice the Government has received.

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In a Budget Estimates hearing this morning, Opposition Leader Steven Marshall grilled Weatherill and Auditor-General Andrew Richardson over a range of topics, including a planned audit of the plaza facelift.

After protracted private negotiations, the Government last year announced a $430 million deal with property developer Walker Corporation that would see the site transformed with a 23-storey office building behind State Parliament, a retail area, car park upgrade and new plaza connecting with the Festival Centre. Works on the precinct began last September.

Richardson had previously indicated his inquiry into the finances of the plaza project would be tabled in parliament by last October, but it is yet to be completed.

Richardson told parliament today he had been unable to continue the investigation last year because negotiations over the plaza contract were still ongoing and “in fact it was possible that there would be no deal”.

“So… we were obliged to stop until the agreement was settled [which] happened in about February of this year [at which point] we recommenced our work,” he said.

“Around about that time, for a range of reasons, I had been going through my statutory obligations and my relationships in particular with the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, and… we started to be concerned about where the Auditor-General’s powers ended and where the commissioner’s powers begin.”

He said there was a “reasonable amount of overlap” in the purview of both agencies.

“Without getting too much into the detail, my obligation is to report on the sufficiency of controls that are in place in the public sector and the commissioner can investigate misconduct and maladministration, but there is a reasonable amount of overlap in how you could define those two terms,” said Richardson.

“We wanted to get clarity about that [which] ended up with me seeking counsel on that, getting legal advice, and that took quite a long time.”

The Festival Plaza revamp will include an office tower next to Parliament House. Supplied image

He said that process blew out the timeline of the plaza audit, along with “a number of other things” because “I needed to be very clear about my obligations to report work or issues that arise from audits to the commissioner”.

He said he now intends to “do that report again” as part of his annual report, or as a supplement to it.

Marshall pressed him that he appeared to be “indicating to this committee that there is an ICAC investigation into the Festival Plaza project”, but Richardson denied that, before Weatherill jumped in: “That is not an appropriate question to ask or answer.”

Weatherill said Richardson’s evidence was that “he was seeking legal advice about the limits of his authority and the limits of the authorities of other tribunals”.

“He sought a legal opinion about the relationship between the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption’s jurisdiction and his jurisdiction, which covered this and a number of other matters, and until he had clarified that, it caused delay to what steps he could take.”

Marshall asked what the outcome of that Crown Law advice was, to which the Premier replied: “We are not going to share that legal opinion.”

Nor would he detail the nature of the specific legal advice sought by the Auditor-General.

“We are not revealing legal advice,” Weatherill said.

“Suffice to say, it is an explanation for the delay about why the report was not prepared… in the broad sense, it was about the scope of the powers of the Auditor-General and the scope of the powers of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.”

Marshall asked if the Premier was aware of “any other inquiry currently underway into the Festival Plaza project”, to which Weatherill answered: “No.”

“So the Premier would not be aware of any other inquiry, for example, by the Office of Public Integrity or the ICAC into this project?” asked Marshall.

“If I was, I would not be revealing it because it would be inappropriate,” said the Premier.

“I am not aware of any particular inquiry that is being undertaken, but if I was, I would not be revealing it.”

ICAC commissioner Bruce Lander’s office told InDaily today it was unable, under the ICAC Act, to comment on anything “that may or may not be under investigation”.

The Commissioner has the authority to issue a public statement or clarification if he deems fit, but he is currently on annual leave overseas and unavailable for comment.

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