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Libs rebuked over ‘hush money’ claim

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The Conservation Council has fired back at Opposition leader David Speirs after he suggested it was receiving Labor Government funding to remain silent on some environmental issues including a promised Southern Expressway off-ramp.

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The state’s peak environment body, which coordinates more than 60 advocacy groups, was allocated $1 million over four years in the Malinauskas Government’s first State Budget this month.

Labor made a pre-election pledge to increase the organisation’s resources to “ensure community voice is properly heard when decisions affecting the environment are being made”.

Speirs raised the Council’s extra funding at a parliamentary estimates committee with Environment Minister Susan Close.

Speirs asked: “Could the funding being provided to the Conservation Council be described as ‘hush money’, rendering the Conservation Council silent on key environmental issues that the government is not appropriately managing?”

Committee chair and Labor MP Tony Piccolo intervened saying, “the minister is not responsible for the actions of the Conservation Council”, to which Speirs replied: “She is responsible for payment of hush money though.”

Speirs, who was environment minister from 2018 to 2022, prefaced his comments by saying the Conservation Council had gone quiet on Labor’s $120 million election commitment to build an on/off ramp at Majors Road along the Southern Expressway.

The Opposition leader has previously said the O’Halloran Hill infrastructure project will “rip a highway through the heart of Glenthorne National Park, felling hundreds of trees”.

“I note that the Conservation Council of South Australia has been vocal in selected transport infrastructure initiatives, such as providing commentary on the North-South Corridor,” Speirs told estimates.

“However, there have been minimal public comments from the Conservation Council about the proposal to build transport infrastructure through Glenthorne National Park.”

But Conservation Council CEO Craig Wilkins rejected the hush money suggestion, saying the group’s funding agreements “do not in any way shape, or form, influence our choice over which issues we choose to engage on and how hard we push”.

“For 50 years we have proudly been non-party political in terms of our advocacy, and we will continue to fiercely guard our political independence no matter which party is in government,” he told InDaily.

“We received funding for all the four years that David Speirs was Minister for the Environment. However, the amount we received fell significantly towards the end of his term.

It would be disappointing to think that, in light of his comments in Estimates last week, he saw our peak body funding as a potential leverage tool to quieten our advocacy voice.

The Conservation Council’s 2022 State Budget response contained no reference to the Majors Road project and applauded the new government’s rethink of the “Godzilla” North-South Corridor upgrade.

But the budget response also included numerous criticisms of the Malinauskas Government’s push to squeeze the Environment Department for more than $11 million in savings and axe renewable energy programs such as the Home Battery and Grid-Scale Storage schemes.

Wilkins confirmed the Conservation Council was yet to weigh in on the Majors Road project as it had received no contact from any of its member organisations.

“Which is not surprising as my understanding [is] the plans are at a concept stage only and we don’t know as yet what exactly is at risk,” he said.

“The reality is there are many road and development-related projects currently before the Native Vegetation Council and other planning bodies that all involve significant tree loss.

“With our limited resources we have no choice but to triage when and how we engage on these developments.

“The Majors Road issue simply hasn’t reached the top of the pile as yet.”

InDaily contacted Speirs’ office but was told he had nothing more to add.

Minister Close also took umbrage at Speirs’ hush money comment.

“The amount of money has increased as a result of our election commitment but is otherwise conceptually no different from money that was paid by the previous government to the Conservation Council,” she said in parliament.

“The idea that the Conservation Council, as the esteemed peak body for the conservation movement, would countenance being silent on an issue that it felt was important is a remarkable allegation to make.”

Speirs asked Close whether there were any conditions on how the Conservation Council’s additional $250,000 a year could be used.

He also pressed the minister on whether she could “guarantee that this money will not be absorbed into the administration costs of the Conservation Council, rather than be directed towards practical projects”.

Close told the committee an existing funding contract between the Environment Department and Council was in place but “the terms of that additional money are still being determined”.

“The contract will identify outcomes that are required as a result of the money being provided,” she said.

“What those outcomes will be are being determined presently and we will be able to have this conversation after that.”

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