Chief Minister Andrew Barr has defended the controversial Dickson land swap with the union-linked Tradies Club, saying the deal was sealed to provide social housing and was "not meant to generate revenue".
Mr Barr's government is facing a Legislative Assembly committee inquiry into an audit report that last month revealed the deal gave the CFMEU-linked club significant concessions worth up to $2.6 million.
The audit revealed those concessions for the club to buy the government-owned Block 30, Section 34, Dickson on "favourable terms", amounted to changing the original proposal to a direct sale.
The tender was originally for a straight-forward sale, but contractual changes ultimately saw the club sell two of its blocks in Section 72, Dickson to government, one for $3.5 million and the other for $45,000, in return buying the government-owned carpark outside the club for $3.9 million.
Among the favourable terms were the government effectively paying about $830,000 more for one of the club's blocks housing the CFMEU headquarters, as well as a lower purchase price for the club to buy the carpark.
Planning Minister Mick Gentleman initially said the audit "puts the matter to bed", but Mr Barr, who was overseas when the audit was released, has now rejected any personal responsibility for the deal via a written statement.
He said the responsibility for the failures involved in the tender process instead rested with "the tender evaluation panel and ultimately, with the delegate [a senior public servant], not the minister".
Despite the tender being only for the sale of a block of government-owned land to what would have been the highest bidder, Mr Barr claimed the "transactions were designed to secure suitable sites for community use, such as social housing".
Mr Barr also said that given [one of] the three blocks involved was for community use, the acquisition of that land, in Section 72 Dickson, was "not a transaction designed to generate revenue".
He also said the final deal was consistent with the Dickson Centre Master Plan and was "designed to secure a site for community facilities while ensuring necessary parking continued to be available" and that it "achieved both these things".
The audit showed Mr Barr in November 2012 signed a ministerial brief from the directorate, "noting" the selection of the club as the preferred tenderer, which Mr Barr said was provided "explicitly for noting the advice" and did not seek his approval, in line with standard procurement processes.
While the audit office found no evidence of direct ministerial involvement in the tender process, the report showed the concessions effectively amounted to making it a "direct sale", which also may have breached the government's Planning and Development Act.
Auditors also found the final terms of the deal were "analogous" to an earlier direct sale application from club to acquire the carpark land, in return for selling land to the government; an application that was rejected.
A former director of sustainable land strategy told auditors that "it was clear the government wanted the Tradies to win", a club he described as "close allies" of the government and Labor Party.
He said he believed the original application for a direct sale, which would have needed Cabinet approval, was only rejected because of the "optics" of such a deal.
Opposition leader Alistair Coe has repeatedly questioned whether there was any actual political involvement in the deal, also raising the prospect such involvement could be a breach of the ministerial code of conduct.
He said Mr Barr, as the relevant minister of the directorate that negotiated the deal, needed to take responsibility for the failures in the tender process and the ultimate outcome favouring one of Labor's "fellow travellers".
But Mr Barr rejected claims of any ministerial involvement, saying he "always acts in line with the ministerial code of conduct and with integrity, transparency, accountability and responsibility".
He also said the Auditor-General "confirmed there was no wrong-doing by any minister", despite making findings of political wrong-doing being outside the audit office's remit.
The audit report did not confirm that "there was no wrongdoing by any minister" as Mr Barr claimed, instead reporting there was "no evidence any ministers were officially advised of the departures" from the original Cabinet-approved terms of sale.
The Assembly public accounts committee inquiry is calling for submissions.
Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times
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