One of former New South Wales premier Mike Baird’s top staff members questioned why then-treasurer Gladys Berejiklian wanted to spend $5.5m funding a clay target shooting range in the “safe seat” of Wagga Wagga, according to documents tendered to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Ahead of his evidence to the NSW anti-corruption watchdog on Wednesday, a former Berejiklian staffer has revealed one of Baird’s top lieutenants, strategy director Nigel Blunden, “queried” why the funding was being supported by the then-treasurer.
“I believe Mr Blunden … queried why we were giving funding to a clay target association in a safe, a relatively safe seat,” former Berejiklian staffer Zacharia Bentley told Icac investigators during a private hearing in April this year.
“I don’t think it would have been on to the merits of the proposal, Mr Blunden would have been more concerned about the expenditure of money in a safe seat … what purpose politically does this serve for the government.”
Icac is conducting two weeks of hearings into whether Berejiklian breached the public’s trust by “exercising public functions” in circumstances where she had a conflict of interest because of her secret relationship with the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
Berejiklian, who resigned as premier after the watchdog revealed it had broadened its investigation to include her conduct, has yet to give evidence at the inquiry but has denied any wrongdoing, framing her mistake as a “personal one” and insisting “I haven’t done anything wrong”. She said history would demonstrate she acted in the best interests of the people of NSW.
A $5.5m grant given to the Australian Clay Target Association in 2017 which Maguire had spent several years lobbying for is one of two funding proposals at the centre of the inquiry.
In its first two days, the anti-corruption watchdog has heard submissions that public servants within the office of sport had concerns about the project and did not understand why it had gone from being a “low priority” which hadn’t “stacked up” financially to requiring an “urgent” submission to the powerful expenditure review committee headed by Berejiklian within weeks in late 2016.
A tranche of documents tendered to Icac late on Tuesday suggests that Bentley, who worked as a policy adviser for Berejiklian when she was the state’s treasurer in 2016, believed she had met with Maguire to discuss the project.
In a November 2016 briefing note prepared for Berejiklian, Bentley, who had at one stage also interned for Maguire, referred to a discussion about the grant he had with the Wagga Wagga MP, mentioning that it “came to a head during a discussion I’ve had with Daryl last week prior to him meeting with you”.
Pressed by Icac investigators on what he knew about a meeting, Bentley said he was not at the meeting. But, he said he believed Berejiklian was “amenable” to the project.
During Monday’s hearing, counsel assisting the inquiry, the barrister Scott Robertson, submitted that the office of then-premier Mike Baird had raised concerns about why the submission for the clay target range was being “rushed”.
A public servant within the office of sport, Michael Toohey, told the inquiry he had discussions with a senior official in the department of premier and cabinet who told him Baird’s office had queried why the funding submission “could not be delayed until the new year”.
In his interview, Bentley said Blunden had “expressed some frustration” about the project, and wondered why Berejiklian’s office was “seeking to have it addressed somewhat urgently”.
Asked what the response was, Bentley said: “I don’t recall but you can take from the fact that it wouldn’t have been the advisers seeking to rush it through on, you know, on our impetus. Like we, we didn’t have a bone in the fight as to whether it needed to happen urgently.”
Robertson then asked: “So the decision to rush it through, to use your phrase, must have been a decision of Ms Berejiklian?”
He replied: “I wouldn’t say rush it through but to expedite it.”
Blunden, as well as Baird, are due to give evidence before Icac on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the commission considered evidence that an official inside the NSW treasury department wrote that Berejiklian had asked for the shooting range and clubhouse proposal to be “brought forward” for consideration in December 2016.
In an email on 6 December 2016, the official, Yogi Savania, wrote that Berejiklian, then the treasurer, had “expressed an inclination to support the proposal”.
That was despite evidence that public servants in the office of sport viewed the project as “low priority”, with a “deficient” business case.
Icac also heard the Treasury had advised it did “not support the recommendations in the submission, as a net benefit to the state has not been adequately demonstrated”.