South Australia’s Attorney-General has told a parliamentary committee she received rental income from a property that would have been affected by a major port development which she subsequently blocked.
South Australian Attorney-General Vickie Chapman denied approval for a timber port on Kangaroo Island
Ms Chapman owns a house next to a plantation owned by the port’s proponents
At a parliamentary inquiry into the decision, Ms Chapman repeatedly claimed she had no conflict of interest
The committee is examining whether Vickie Chapman acted properly when she, as Planning Minister, rejected a proposal to build a timber export port at Smith Bay, on Kangaroo Island, in August.
Ms Chapman told the committee she owns a house at Gum Valley, which was rented to a local family.
But she denied knowing that an adjacent plantation was under contract to Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers, nor that concerns about increased truck traffic past the property played any role in her decision to deny the company’s development application..
“Nothing’s happening there that I’ve seen … I haven’t noticed any activity in there or [had any] contract. Nobody’s told me that,” she said.
However, committee members pointed out the assessment report into the development showed haulage routes passing her family property and going to the neighbouring block.
“I would indicate to you that that was of no detriment to me,” Ms Chapman said.
Questions over conflict of interest
Counsel Assisting the committee, Rachael Gray QC, said Ms Chapman had an obligation to identify and report both perceived and actual conflicts of interest before she made decisions about the application.
“Do you accept that the fact you were being asked to make a decision on a proposal that had haulage rates within 1 to 2 kilometres of property you owned could create a perception of conflict of interest?” Dr Gray asked.
“Well, I don’t,” Ms Chapman said.
“If it did, somebody would have written to me saying, ‘Look, this is the situation’.”
However, Dr Gray said the minister was responsible for identifying a potential conflict, not the proponents of the project.
“The obligation to identify a conflict: Do you accept that that’s your obligation, not that of the proposed developer?” she said.
Ms Chapman responded: “I’ve indicated that I don’t agree that I had a conflict or a perceived conflict. I’ve just pointed out that, if there was, somebody else who thought I did, I thought I would have heard from them.”
The Attorney-General also told the committee the proximity of haulage routes and potential for increased truck traffic would not have influenced her decision.
“I have no issue with trucks. I understand their significance, in [that] they’re being able to advance and maintain any industry.”
Ms Chapman said she did not seek the Crown Solicitor’s advice on whether she had a conflict of interest, even though department staff had asked her more than once to “turn her mind” to that question.
“I don’t recall getting specific Crown Solicitor’s advice on those matters,” she told the committee.
Dr Gray referenced a minute prepared for Ms Chapman by the chief executive of the Attorney-General’s Department, in September 2020.
“It says: ‘I’ve been advised that you may be considering delegating the decision and that your colleague, the Honourable Michelle Lensink, Minister for Human Services, may be appointed as Acting Minister for Planning and Local Government,'” Dr Gray told the committee.
When asked how it came about that Ms Lensink would be appointed as acting minister, Ms Chapman answered: “I assume because they’d been informed that I was considering whether there was any conflict of interest. I may not have made that decision at that point and, presumably, the department makes that inquiry as to who’s available.
At various times during her evidence, Ms Chapman denied she had an actual or perceived conflict.
“I do not consider that I have any conflict of interest,” she said.
“Neither I, nor my family, have [had] any advantage, or benefit, or avoided any detriment by my decision.”
Opposition calls for Attorney-General to go
Labor’s government accountability spokesman, Tom Koutsantonis, said Ms Chapman needs to resign following today’s hearing.
“After today’s unsatisfactory answers, Vickie Chapman has no option but to resign her commission immediately,” Mr Koutsantonis said.
“Vickie Chapman wants South Australians to believe she didn’t know the forest across the road from her family home was to be harvested by KI Plantation Timbers.
“That property was clearly referenced in the assessment report the Attorney-General told parliament she had a ‘good read’ of and thoroughly examined.
“Either she didn’t read the report and she’s negligent and didn’t approve a project because she didn’t read the report — or she did read the report and knew it.”
Chapman condemns ‘expensive charade’
As she finished giving evidence, Ms Chapman took a swing at the committee and the conduct of some of its members.
“The approach that’s been taken in the undertaking of this inquiry, to have some kind of pre-election issue of the day, media statement, is just a charade and it’s just a nonsense and it’s a very, very expensive one,” she said.
She accused the opposition of trying to politicise her brother’s suicide in 2017.
“I was bitterly disappointed that you would assert that, by coming in to inherited money from my deceased brother’s estate, that this in some way was some attempt to conceal the contemporaneous transfer, of my consideration of this matter with the inheritance of that property, when it would be well-known to you the circumstances in which I [acquired] that property,” Ms Chapman said.
“There is not a day that passes that all my sisters wouldn’t want our brother back rather than having those extra parcels of land.”