Probe into NSW govt's $53m toxic land deal

Luke Costin
·3-min read

The NSW government's $53.5 million purchase of a slice of toxic land that delivered its previous owners a $15 million profit has been referred to the state's auditor-general.

Auditor-General Margaret Crawford received correspondence from Transport Minister Andrew Constance over the future tram-yard's acquisition, her office confirmed on Monday.

The matter would be given due consideration, a spokesman said.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was "extremely concerned" by reports about the deal and supported the referral to the audit office.

"I think, at face value, there are sufficient questions that need to be answered," she told reporters on Monday.

"I would welcome an investigation of any description into that matter."

The state transport department first tried to purchase the six-hectare property bordering industrial suburb Camellia in 2015 as it searched for a tram stabling and maintenance yard for the $2.4 billion Parramatta Light Rail.

Being outbid by a private buyer willing to pay $38.15 million didn't deter the department.

It set about negotiating with new owner Grand 4 Investments and then compulsorily acquired the property for $53.5 million in June 2016.

The price included the private company's legal fees as per compulsory acquisition laws, Transport for NSW said on Monday.

"No other site in the Camellia precinct was suitable for reasons that included insufficient land size, access, flood protection and existing industrial operations," a spokesman said on Monday.

"The decision to acquire the property was made on the basis that the site best met Transport for NSW's needs and to secure the site in the face of changing local market conditions, delivering certainty for the project."

The $53.5 million price tag was three times that of the valuer-general's official valuation, the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC reported on Monday.

Contracts worth $52.7 million have since been signed to remediate the land, which previously hosted industrial and chemical manufacturing.

"Transport for NSW will co-operate fully with any review of the acquisition of 4-6 Grand Avenue, Camellia," the spokesman said.

The Parramatta Light Rail project, connecting Westmead to Carlingford via Parramatta and Camellia, is due to start in 2023.

The deal was referred to the audit office "to give the community confidence and full transparency", Mr Constance said.

"I expect full openness, transparency and accountability from Transport for NSW," he said in a statement, referring questions about the purchase to the department.

Labor's finance spokesman said Mr Constance must immediately explain why his department paid way above market value for toxic land.

"The cost to taxpayers could run into hundreds of millions of dollars," Daniel Mookhey said in a statement.

The scandal comes after an investigation revealed the federal government in 2018 paid $30 million for land worth $3 million near the proposed Western Sydney Airport.

Auditor-General Grant Hehir in July referred the deal to the Australian Federal Police, which is now investigating potential fraud involved in the deal.