The trouble with conflicts of interest in coal is … troubling

The board of the Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) has been rocked by a leak of information showing “critical shortcomings” in the way it handles and secures sensitive information.

This piece was first published on The Fifth Estate. 

The information in the leak also revealed potential conflicts of interest for the board of the NAIF, already facing a senate grilling over poor governance practices.

The leaked documents reveal the NAIF was (or is) considering funding a second mining rail project in Western Australia after being approached by the Balla Balla Infrastructure Group.

The leak was another embarrassment for the NAIF, which has routinely denied FOI requests and any attempts at oversight or transparency.

Experts and politicians have over time declared it “one of the most secretive agencies I’ve ever come across”, compared its governance to that of a “third-world country struggling to develop where corruption is apparent in both its corporate sector and its public sector” or simply called it a “slush fund” or a “national party slush fund”.

Greenpeace released research in December exposing a board stacked with directors with strong ties to the mining industry. So when this week’s revelations broke, we started digging.

The first potential conflict was easy to identify.

As a non-executive director for Fortescue Metals (whose own iron ore mine, rail and port in the Pilbara would be in direct competition with the proposed rail line) NAIF chair Sharon Warburton had a very obvious potential conflict of interest.

The second required a little effort but still wasn’t difficult.

In August 2016 there were a number of news stories about Justin Mannolini returning to law as a partner for Gilbert + Tobin, after more than a decade spent working in the legal and banking sectors.

Gilbert + Tobin put up a release on their website about how they were bolstering their presence in WA with the high-profile hire. On the same website, G+T detail how the firm advised the Balla Balla Infrastructure Group on the execution of a state agreement with the WA government for the project this week’s leak revealed is seeking a loan from NAIF.

This advisory role is ongoing, meaning that the same law firm will presumably give advice on any applications to the NAIF.

This is a clear potential conflict of interest. Someone possibly advising a company on how to apply for a loan they themselves are on the board to approve would be like a contestant on Australian Idol being coached by one of the judges.

Additionally Mannolini, whose firm has previously advised the Adani Group, is the chair of the board of Jindalee Resources – a company that has an interest in a number of iron and base metal projects in the Pilbara and other parts of WA.

This isn’t the first time conflict of interest has arisen for the NAIF and it is unlikely to be the last.

Karla Way-McPhail, who runs mining labour and equipment hire companies that have advertised their ability to service the Galilee Basin (where the proposed Carmichael coal mine would be located), has refused to disclose whether she has recused herself from NAIF discussions about a loan to Adani. She has also been revealed to be a Liberal Party donor, a mate of Matt Canavan, and has made “hyper-partisan comments” online in support of the coal industry.

If you want to take a guess at what the next NAIF conflict of interest scandal might be, have a look at the 2016 Greenpeace report titled “Off Track: Why NAIF can’t approve the Carmichael Mine project”.

The entire second chapter is devoted to “a board with special relationships”: a spiderweb of connections between the then seven members of the NAIF and bodies like Adani, Rio Tinto, the Minerals Council, Fortescue Metals, Sherwin Iron and Jindalee Resources to name just a handful.

Warburton this week responded in a statement to the potential conflicts in the leak by repeating that it would not release “details of specific recusals” made by its directors, but added directors were aware of their obligations to disclose and manage conflicts.

That’s not good enough.

During your life as an Australian citizen you will earn, on average, anywhere between $1.7 million to $2.9 million. If you have a university degree you’re likely to earn more than someone without one.

Cradle to the grave – that’s it.

In the next year or two the NAIF board will decide on how to spend more than 200 times that – and we have a right to know it is doing it the right way.

The NAIF board isn’t doing this all for free, either.

The board is earning around $500,000 of public money a year – that’s around 1/6th of the lifetime earnings of the average Aussie, given to just six people in exchange for deciding how a further $5 billion dollars of public money is best spent.

We deserve better than secretive slush funds.

The board must release its recusals; it must respond to FOI requests, and it must treat the people of Australia, whose money it is custodian of, with respect.