By Michael McGowan, originally published in the Guardian 29th April 2021.

The federal government’s controversial $30m purchase of the Leppington triangle site was either the result of “gross incompetence or corruption”, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.

Geoffrey Watson SC, the director of the Centre of Public Integrity, told a Senate inquiry the purchase of a 12.26-hectare triangular parcel of land near the site of Sydney’s second airport for 10 times its market value was “unjustifiable”.

Watson on Thursday accused the federal infrastructure department of “having a lend” of the committee.

“The money used to make the purchase was public money and the funds withdrawn were administered by public officials,” Watson said.

“Given the processes were readily available to assume [the land] at commercial value [it is] unjustifiable to purchase it at more than market value. To make the purchase at 10 times its value must show the decision was one of two things. It had to be … either gross incompetence or corruption – it can’t be anything else.”

In September, the auditor general released a damning report revealing ethical failings in the infrastructure department’s purchase of the $30m Leppington triangle, land the government needs for a planned second runway at the western Sydney airport after 2050.

The audit found taxpayers spent $26.7m too much for the land, which was owned by the Perich family, whose company donated $58,800 to the Liberal party in 2018-19.

It also revealed that six staff working in the Western Sydney Unit responsible for the deal had declared conflicts of interest. The infrastructure department has refused to explain the details of the conflicts.

Watson was also highly critical of the department’s submission to the Senate inquiry, pointing out that the only mention of the purchase stated that it was “taking action to address shortcomings in processes and decision-making” identified by the auditor.

“If that’s the best you can be told by the body responsible for this, well I don’t accept it, I’m afraid the department of infrastructure is having a lend of you,” he said.Advertisement

“There is no explanation as to what happened, why it happened, or even who was involved. There’s not even a hint of an apology.”

A former counsel assisting the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, Watson said the case demonstrated the need for a federal anti-corruption body, particularly given budget cuts to the auditor general following the release of its report into the Leppington triangle.

The airport development has also been beset by criticism from residents surrounding the site after a series of planning decisions that denied them critical priority rezoning. The residents claim priority was afforded to other, wealthier, landholders as part of the new western Sydney “aerotropolis” development.

On Thursday, the Senate inquiry, which is investigating the planning, construction and management of the western Sydney airport project, heard from a number of residents in the precinct who said their lives had been placed on indefinite hold as a result of the decisions.

“The frustration, the sense of anxiety, has continued to build,” resident Ross Murphy told the inquiry.

He said real estate agents had told him his property was “unsellable” as a result of the project and that it could be “between five and 20 years” before it was acquired as part of the airport development.