Jeff Seeney: Queensland deputy premier caught own officials by surprise with retrospective law change preventing possible prosecution of LNP donor
Queensland Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney caught government officials off guard when he ordered a last-minute law change that prevented the possible prosecution of a major LNP donor for what senior bureaucrats deemed illegal river quarrying.
Emails, briefing notes and other correspondence between senior officials and Department of Natural Resources and Mines Minister Andrew Cripps show no discussion about a change to the law before Mr Seeney ordered the amendment to the Water Act in early April.
The retrospective law change allowed Karreman Quarries to continue to extract millions of dollars worth of sand and gravel from the bed of the Upper Brisbane River at Harlin, north-west of Brisbane.
Karreman Quarries gave $50,000 to the Queensland LNP in 2011-12, putting it among the party’s top dozen donors. It gave $25,000 to the LNP the previous year.
It has also emerged that, since 7.30 revealed Mr Seeney’s role in June, the State Government allocated $1.6 million of taxpayer funds to restoring the slumped river banks of properties on the Upper Brisbane River, where for 20 years the owners have blamed quarrying for the damage.
Karreman Quarries told the ABC a consultant had advised it the operation was causing only “minimal impact” upstream.
Mr Seeney strongly denied the claims that he acted inappropriately and said that “to this day I have never spoken to the owners of this property about this issue”.
He said the change to the law was part of a long-held LNP policy goal to redress a state-wide problem over how watercourses are defined.
But documents obtained under Right To Information laws show officials worked for months to get Karreman Quarries to comply with the Water Act and stop quarrying the river bed, and there was no discussion of any prospective legislative change.
An aide to Mr Seeney even drafted a letter for him to sign on March 31 warning quarry owner Dick Karreman he lacked the permit required since 2010 for such quarrying. The letter was never sent.
Instead, just days later, Mr Seeney ordered an amendment be drafted that made prosecution of Karreman Quarries impossible and authorised the company to extract sand and gravel at Harlin for a further five years.
Karreman Quarries had told officials a court ruling in 2006 gave it rights to work the river bed.
“Looks like an amendment to fix a court ruling? Water Act or something?” wrote Andrew Freeman, chief of staff to Mr Cripps, in an email to colleagues on April 3 after hearing of the planned amendment.
Seeney and Newman promised to investigate quarrying claims
In ABC interviews in June, Mr Seeney and Premier Campbell Newman promised to investigate farmers’ claims that quarrying was causing the damage to their properties.
Mr Seeney said he had since sought briefings from the departments of Mines and Natural Resources and Environment and their ministers, and there was “no evidence of any connection at all” between the damage and the quarrying.
“What’s happening up there is a pretty typical example of bank slumping,” Mr Seeney said.
Bank slumping happens when slabs of the riverbank collapse. It can be caused by the removal of trees from the top of the bank, the deepening of the channel by erosion or dredging, or by the rapid lowering of flood waters after the saturation of the bank.
The farmers’ position is backed by eminent geomorphologist John Olley of Griffith University, who said Karreman Quarries was “effectively mining the upstream properties” because holes dug in the river bed inevitably migrated upstream as the channel sought equilibrium.
Mr Olley also warned that quarrying at Harlin dumped sediment into Lake Wivenhoe, the main supply of drinking water for Brisbane, increasing annual water treatment costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He said Victoria and New South Wales had recognised the damage caused by this type of extraction and banned it 20 years ago.
Karreman Quarries said it had received legal advice that it had “accrued rights” to operate based on its history of extracting at Harlin. Allegations about the lawfulness of its operation and its impacts “were often made without a full appreciation of the legal position and have included factual inaccuracies”, it said.
However, according to the internal government documents, company owner Dick Karreman knew he would be breaking the law unless extraction stopped.
An official noted after Mr Karreman met Mr Cripps on March 11 that the quarry owner was “conscious that he would be committing an offence if he continues”.
Lawyers for Karreman Quarries have confirmed that the documents were an accurate record of the meeting.
But they said the company had told the Government it believed the removal of its rights by previous amendments to legislation was legally ineffective.
Emails warned of potential for court action
Emails show that government legal advisers, the director-general of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines and Mr Cripps worked together for months on a plan to go to court if needed to stop Karreman Quarries at Harlin.
“There is the potential for this to escalate to court action,” executive director in the south region Wally Kearnan wrote to director-general Brett Heyward on October 13, 2013.
On March 26 of this year Mr Kearnan wrote in an email to Mr Cripps: “No matter which way I tackle this it ends up back under the Water Act – hence why we did what we did. Anyway I have the surveyors working on a last ditch strategy but not hopeful.”
A site inspection on March 28 confirmed the extraction was still going on despite two departmental compliance notices.
Careful consideration will need to be given to how this outcome is communicated to the complainants, given they are … still unaware of this action and its failure to meaningfully address their concerns.
Department of Natural Resources and Mines investigator Fred Hundy
Mr Seeney told the ABC in June that it had always been LNP policy to amend the Water Act to clear up what he said was confusion left by reforms by Labor in 2010 about the definition of river banks.
But documents show that after the amendment had become law in May, officials were still unclear about the definition of “lower bank” and how the new provision would affect Karreman Quarries.
“We agree that further advice should be sought from those responsible for drafting the provisions as to what they had in mind for a ‘lower bank’,” department investigator Fred Hundy told regional manager Paul Sanders in an email on June 4.
Officials also had concerns about how the farmers would react to the unannounced change.
“Careful consideration will need to be given to how this outcome is communicated to the complainants, given they are, to my knowledge at least, still unaware of this action and its failure to meaningfully address their concerns,” Mr Hundy wrote.
Mr Seeney said the amendment was to prevent businesses that had operated for years being shut down by changes made by the previous Labor government in 2010.
“It’s a matter of property rights, it’s a matter of respecting the rights of property owners to not have their ownership eroded by a definitional change by government,” he said.
There is no mention in the correspondence of any risk to the viability of Karreman Quarries, one of Australia’s biggest quarry operators, or any other company.
Mr Seeney was unable to name any other company affected by the change to the law.