Filling in Lake Burley Griffin at West Basin to make development financially viable. Photo: Paul Costigan

"We can't say anyone involved is telling fibs, but so much of the land swap deal remains undisclosed or obscured by the disingenuous spin of those involved, including the NCA, the Greens and Labor politicians and the role of the City Renewal Authority," writes "Canberra Matters" columnist PAUL COSTIGAN

LEADING into the 2016 ACT elections, the Chief Minister was under fire because of the Dickson land swap, with the Tradies Club seen as the winners and the taxpayer the losers. 

Paul Costigan.

The details of the land swap went missing when the bureaucracy "misplaced" a box of files. Apparently, the Land Development Agency (LDA) did not use emails.

The Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, was the minister directly involved with the LDA’s directions. The LDA’s CEO probably thought the Chief Minister had his back in several questionable land deals. 

As the focus came down on the Dickson land swap, the LDA chief discovered Andrew Barr had left the building, leaving him to resign. The Minister for Urban Redevelopment and Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, managed to brush off accusations and survived the October 2016 elections – mainly thanks to a foolish campaign run by the Liberals.

Now travel forward to early 2020 when the ACT government announced a deal with the National Capital Authority (NCA). Part of the lake at West Basin ended up in the hands of the ACT government and by coincidence the NCA simultaneously claimed land in North Curtin for its future allocation of embassies. 

People were suspicious as costs were not mentioned and there was nothing about the comparison of the land values. All players claimed that someone else was responsible. 

In May, 2020, I wrote an opinion piece on the City Renewal Authority and the West Basin-North Curtin land swap. 

"CityNews" quickly received a letter from Malcolm Snow, CEO of the City Renewal Authority demanding corrections. Most of the letter was word-smithing and game playing. The main correction sought was that the City Renewal Authority was not involved in the negotiations for the transfer of land between the Commonwealth and the ACT governments. To keep the peace and to move on, the opinion piece was amended to state that the land swap involved the ACT government.

The City Renewal Authority was created as a body answerable to the ACT Minister for Planning (whoever he is) and is organisationally linked to the ACT's planning directorate. It is part of the ACT government and, on a day-to-day basis, is seen to be working directly to the Chief Minister. 

On May 26, Belinda Strahorn reported in "CityNews" that former chief minister and "CityNews" columnist Jon Stanhope had obtained some of the West Basin-North Curtin land-swap communications through a Freedom of Information request (or two). 

The documents make it clear that the City Renewal Authority was the driving force to make the land deal happen as was the Chief Minister’s office. There was no mention of the planning minister.

The Authority, working to the Chief Minister, needed the foreshore moved out (with the lake filled in) so that more of the present West Basin foreshore, the parklands, could later be sold for suburban development. If this land swap did not happen, the parklands redevelopment was not financially viable. 

We cannot say that anyone involved is telling fibs. So much of this deal remains undisclosed or obscured by the disingenuous spin of those involved, including the NCA, the ACT Greens and Labor politicians and, let’s not forget, the role of the City Renewal Authority.

With yet another questionable land swap to their credit, the Labor/Greens coalition sailed through the 2020 ACT elections having been assisted by another silly campaign by the ACT Liberals. 

Andrew Barr now has the honour of two obscured and questionable land swaps to his name. What a legacy! Maybe a statue of Andrew Barr at West Basin could be the next public art commission.

Seriously, Andrew Barr should place on the public record the financial documentation and the rest of the communications involved with this land swap. It is called transparency and working with the residents – not against them. 

Surely, there must be someone left in the ACT Labor/Greens government who still believes in such basic governance and would stand up for these fundamental values? Telling fibs, in any form (including withholding information), should not be what any ACT government stands for.

Who can be trusted?

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Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor