The process that led to the removal of a formerly protected London plane tree in Manuka was one of the first incidents referred to the newly established ACT Integrity Commission.
A community member referred the matter to the commission on December 2 last year, one day after the commissioned opened for business.
The referral, seen by the Sunday Canberra Times, argued the actions of the ACT Planning and Land Authority in regards to tree - which was eventually removed after a contested process to make way for the redevelopment of the Capitol Cinema - fell under the Integrity Commission's definition of corruption.
"It would be an understatement to say that this chain of events has seriously undermined the community's confidence in the integrity of actions of the ACT Government, particularly ACTPLA, and has raised serious concerns about corrupt conduct within that authority, from the top down," the referral said.
The referral argued the planning authority at times had the appearance of "being driven to a pre-ordained conclusion despite any opposing evidence or argument".
But an expert on local government corruption has said it is unlikely the complaint will go far.
Transnational Research Institute on Corruption executive director Dr Adam Masters, who is based at the Australian National University, said the claim corruption had occurred in relation to the tree would be difficult to substantiate.
"There does not appear to have been any dishonesty, nor does there appear to have been any partiality. While transparency is lacking, that does not automatically equate to corruption," Dr Masters said.
The tree, on Franlkin Street, Griffith, was protected in 2012. The site's owner, Liangis Investments, applied to have the protection cancelled in 2015 in an effort to redevelop the site. The application was denied.
A development application for the site was approved in November 2018, pending a new decision on the tree's removal. After the tree's registration was upheld, the decision was challenged in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which led to a mediated outcome that allowed for the tree to be removed.
Dr Masters said a 1997 summary of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption commissioner's role in investigating a 1993 planning dispute could serve as a good guidance for the ACT.
Commissioner Barry O'Keefe wrote, "The role of the Commission does not include resolving disputes between those in the community or on the Council who favour a policy of development in the area, and those who adopt or advocate a policy which involves essentially no change or very limited change in the area."
Dr Masters said whether the ACT Integrity Commission chose to investigate the tree matter would depend on multiple factors, including the level of media attention.
"Like all anti-corruption agencies, they will receive far more complaints and allegations than they can deal with," he said.
TIMELINE OF THE TREE
- 1970-1975: Sometime in this period the tree is planted in an easement between the Capitol Theatre and the Manuka post office, according to an arborists' report prepared for the site's owners.
- December 13, 2010: A local resident nominates the London plane tree for protection with an incomplete nomination form.
- December 16, 2010: An initial assessment finds the tree "provides aesthetic and environmental benefits" but is "not located in an ideal position".
- May 1, 2012: Then conservator of flora and fauna, Penny Farnsworth, includes the tree on the ACT Tree Protection Register.
- 2015: Liangis Investments buys the block of land next to the cinema building on the Flinders Way side of the site. The company first bought the Cinema in 1989 after it was redeveloped in 1980.
- November 2, 2015: Liangis Investments applies to the Conservator of Flora and Fauna to cancel the registration of the tree at 15 Franklin Street.
- March 31, 2016: The conservator decides not to grant the cancellation of the tree's registration.
- August 22, 2016: Liangis Investments applies to the conservator for a reconsideration of the decision.
- September 13, 2016: The conservator confirms the application has been refused.
- October 6, 2016: Liangis Investments applies to ACAT for a review of the Conservator's decision.
- November 25, 2016: The ACT Administrative and Civil Tribunal rules Liangis Investments could not apply for a review of the Conservator's decision, highlighting "copy and paste" issues in the Tree Protection Act that did not allow merit reviews.
- August 24, 2017: Then Transport and City Services Minister Meeghan Fitzharris introduces changes to the Tree Protection Act in the Legislative Assembly to allow for merits reviews.
- June 2018: Owner Sotiria Liangis lodges a development application for an "iconic and prestigious" hotel on the cinema site.
- November 2018: ACT Chief Planner Ben Ponton approves the removal of the tree, pending a decision from Conservator Ian Walker on whether to allow it to be struck from the protection register.
- December 2018: The Canberra Times reports the ACT's planning authority ignored the advice of the National Capital Design Review Panel, which recommended against approving the hotel plans.
- January 2019: Inner-south residents raise concerns for the tree's health, after a central column of leaves starts turning brown.
- February 2019: Mrs Liangis calls an arborist who finds a drill hole in the tree's trunk. Mrs Liangis reports the drill hole to police, she later tells The Canberra Times.
- March 2019: An investigation by the government's tree protection unit finds the drill hole but was unable to identify any poison in the hole.
- May 22, 2019: The conservator, Mr Walker, decides to keep the tree on the protection register, prompting Mrs Liangis' son, John Liangis, to lash out at unrepresentative residents' groups who had "weaponised" the process. Mr Walker's decision says there was no evidence of the tree's impact on services, despite large roots breaching a sewerage pipe.
- June 2019: A local business group calls for the tree to go to make way for a "transformative" hotel development.
- July 9, 2019: The Griffith Narrabundah Community Association, which had opposed the removal of the tree and argued that it should be included in future development on the block, calls for greater government investment in Manuka to arrest the decline of the "decaying" precinct.
- July 26, 2019: The tree is cleared for removal after mediation at the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal leads to a compromise between Liangis Investments and the conservator.
- July 31, 2019: Work starts to remove the tree.
- December 2, 2019: A community member refers the process which led to the tree's removal to the ACT's newly formed Integrity Commission.