Australia’s top infrastructure bureaucrat has conceded it appears public servants covered up a controversial land deal found to be $27 million over the odds.
The Western Sydney Airport purchase is being scrutinised at Senate estimates after the Australian National Audit Office excoriated it in a scathing report.
Taxpayers paid $30 million in 2018 for the 12-hectare plot, which was worth only $3 million.
Labor’s chief questioner Penny Wong described the auditor-general’s report as a damning indictment of the department.
“I actually find it gobsmacking,” she told a hearing in Canberra on Monday.
Senator Wong said the report uncovered extraordinary conduct that was outside what any reasonable person would think was appropriate.
“But worse, what it looks like is people tried to cover it up when the audit office came asking questions,” she said.
Infrastructure Department boss Simon Atkinson agreed it appeared officials had tried to cover up the issue when auditors started hunting for answers.
“I want to get to the bottom of what happened, which is why I’ve pulled in an independent auditor of my own so that I can get to the bottom of the facts,” he said.
“I’m trying to clean it up.”
Former intelligence chief Vivienne Thom is investigating one public servant, who has been stood down, over the Leppington Triangle land deal.
Another officer is facing a separate investigation over allegations conflicts of interest were not declared on other matters and has been reassigned within the department.
Mr Atkinson moved to refer the issue to the Australian Federal Police on October 8 but found the ANAO had already sparked an investigation.
He said the auditor-general’s report contained very concerning allegations which he took extremely seriously.
The federal government paid 22 times more per hectare than the NSW government spent on its portion of the land.
The audit found property owner Leppington Pastoral Company had suggested to the government the name of a valuer, which was agreed to by the department.
A departmental accountant flagged concerns the amount paid was much higher than the value of the land.
But the Western Sydney Unit – the part of the department which organised the deal – found there was nothing wrong.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who is also infrastructure minister, insists the purchase was a bargain for taxpayers.
The department secretary said he wasn’t aware of any evidence to support that claim but noted it was hard to determine if a compulsory acquisition would have cost more or less.