Labor renews calls for national integrity commission over Sydney airport offsets

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Labor has strengthened its call for a national integrity commission, saying it is needed to investigate the Morrison government’s purchase of more than $30m in environmental offsets related to the development of the western Sydney airport.

The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, made the call after the New South Wales transport department referred its purchases of $50.6m in offsets from the same western Sydney properties to the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption for investigation.

“A national anti-corruption commission would be able to uncover the truth about these deals and hold ministers accountable in the same way that NSW has been able to quickly refer questions about its land deal to its anti-corruption commission,” Dreyfus said on Friday.

Related: ‘Deeply concerning’: government consultant made millions from NSW environmental offsets

“Scott Morrison must urgently explain what steps he is going to take to get to the bottom of this, and finally act on establishing a powerful, independent and transparent national anti-corruption commission. Enough is enough.”

The calls follow a Guardian Australia investigation that revealed that a company known as Meridolum No 1 made more than $40m selling offsets for infrastructure projects that Eco Logical Australia, which employed two of Meridolum’s directors, had advised the state government on.

One of those directors, Steven House, holds interests in two other properties – known as Hampden Vale and Hardwicke – that sold a further $66.8m in offsets for developments in western Sydney from 2017 to 2019.

House and his Eco Logical Australia colleague have denied any suggestion of wrongdoing or conflict of interest, saying they made the appropriate declarations.

Over a two and a half year period, Meridolum, Hampden Vale and Hardwicke sold $118m in offset credits, according to the NSW biobanking register.

The credits were predominantly purchased by the state and federal governments, including $37.5m by the federal infrastructure department as part of the offsets package for the western Sydney airport.

The Greens on Friday referred the airport offsets to the federal auditor general.

The Greens’ environment spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, agreed the case highlighted the need for a federal integrity watchdog.

“The lack of curiosity and concern by the Morrison government about this matter is alarming. There is zero accountability at the top and once again it is the environment that suffers,” she said.

“Given the auditor general’s already reported concerns over conflicts of interests in environmental approvals, the Greens have referred this specific offset arrangement to him for investigation.”

Tim Beshara, of the Wilderness Society, said an immediate audit of the western Sydney environmental offsets system was needed. .

He said Guardian Australia’s reporting on environmental offsets for major developments in western Sydney had catalogued the failure to deliver offsets that were required to meet approvals, the establishment of offsets on already protected public land and “a growing list of allegations about conflicts of interest and massive wastage of public money”.

“These allegations involve actions required for approval under the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act and go to the public trust and credibility in the entire system they oversee,” he said.

Guardian Australia sought comment from the Morrison government.

A spokesman for the environment department said “the issues raised by the media articles are a matter for the NSW government”.

“The department is satisfied that the requirement under the EPBC Act for quantum and quality of offsets [for the western Sydney airport] has been satisfied.”

The federal government has been consulting stakeholders about its draft legislation for a commonwealth integrity commission, but the proposed model has been criticised as weak.

Eco Logical has been involved in NSW’s offsetting scheme since its inception and has advised the state government on multiple developments in western Sydney since the early 2000s, including on the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan, a joint state and federal government roads program to support the new airport and surrounds.

House and the directors of Meridolum have said they followed government tender processes for the sale of the offsets and made the appropriate declarations to all departments about House and his colleague’s roles at Eco Logical Australia.

House and his colleague from Eco Logical Australia have said they were not personally involved in preparing the offset advice for the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan, and do not recall ever seeing the relevant report.

They have also noted publicly available information about the anticipated demand for offsets in western Sydney, including through the environmental impact statement for the new airport.