There is conflict of interest in the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility

Sharon Warburton at the opening of Naif headquarters in Cairns
Contributed from Queensland

The revelation that three out of the six board members of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (Naif) are tied to mining. Australian governments have a long tradition of appointing corporate representatives onto bodies dealing with the concerned industry.

The exposure by Joshua Robertson   in the Australian edition of the Guardian (13 September 2017), raises the existence of conflict of interest. No argument. There certainly appears to be, when Naif is there to hand out up to $5 billion.

One example is Balla Balla Infrastructure Group (BBIG), which reportedly sought a  loan to help with its $6 billion Pilbara iron ore venture. Naif chair, Sharon Warburton, happens to be a director of this company. She is also a director of Fortescue Metals, which also mines iron ore in the Pilbara.

Another Naif director is Justin Mannolini. He is a partner in law firm Gilbert and Tobin, which has been working for BBIG to secure an agreement with the Western Australian government. He is also chair of Jindalee Resources, another Pilbara company. The third is Karla Way-McPhail. Her businesses provide services to the mining industry.

These three individuals play key roles in determining who gets access to taxpayer funded money. By any definition, there is a clear-cut conflict of interest. They should stand down or be removed. This is especially so, when it is claimed that Naif is an independent body.

Nor is it reasonable to pass this off as an accident. Appointments like this are not made so lightly. One justification that could be put forward is that these people bring knowledge of the industry. Perhaps. But this can be accessed if they are appointed as advisors. They should never be given the power to give money to ventures that they have a personal interests in.

Making it all the worse, is the lack of transparency over who makes specific Naif decisions. Warburton is reported as saying that directors had “significant experience in deciding whether their personal circumstances give rise to an actual, apparent or potential conflict of interest,” and that it is appropriate for them to be the ones to decide when to or when not to stand aside form specific cases.

At this point, there is no move by the government to change anything. Given this, Naifis poised  to blow out to a new headache for Turnbull to deal with.  More so, with an application coming in from Adani, asking assistance for the Carmichael venture in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

In May, there was the revelation that there is a connection between possible conflict involving another Naif director, Karla Way-McPhail. This was instrumental in triggering a Senate inquiry into the agency’s operations and governance.

It is a no brainer. The Naif board should be replaced by members who are not linked to the mining industry and that details of decisions and who makes them, should be subject to public scrutiny. Without this, there can be no certainty that the operations of the body are above board.

However, the problem extends past Naif, to all bodies that may be set up by government. There needs to be a re-assessment over how this is done, involving a shift away from the habit of pandering to powerful interests. Until this is in palce, the way government operates in Australia will wear the odour of corruption.

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