The depth of skulduggery surrounding Nathan Tinkler’s abortive coal loader at Newcastle, revealed in the hearings of the ICAC’s Operation Spicer inquiry, has surprised most of us.

Perhaps only Jodi McKay, the Labor member for Newcastle unseated in a dirty tricks campaign spearheaded by her erstwhile party colleague Joe Tripodi, had an inkling what lengths Tinkler and his team at Buildev had gone to in pursuit of their vision for the former BHP steelworks site at Mayfield.

Now we know what went on in glorious detail — the donations, the sham outfits, the leaflets, the texts, the meetings, the leaked government documents — and this week’s Independent Commission Against Corruption appearance by Tinkler will shed more light.

The loader, however, was rejected. Although McKay was shoved out of the way, nothing was achieved from a business point of view.

In fact, Tinkler soon gave up even on McKay’s replacement, Liberal MP Tim Owen, deciding instead he would work with the Nationals, particularly then-opposition ports spokesman Andrew Stoner. At one point Tinkler, who has a way with words, texted Buildev’s David Sharpe saying he was not convinced Owen was onside: “He’s a fence-sitter like his deadbeat leader [Barry O’Farrell]. Will drive through Stoner and Tim can read about it in the papers like his boss”. That too ended in failure, with O’Farrell finally rejecting the loader in January 2012.

Or did it? While the loader was rejected, two months later the Planning Assessment Commission finally gave approval to the Maules Creek project near Narrabri, which Tinkler’s Aston Resources had bought from Rio Tinto in 2009, floated on the stock exchange at a tidy profit and then merged into Whitehaven Coal.

The first PAC approval was only preliminary: under the new planning process introduced by O’Farrell to replace the Labor party’s controversial Part 3A, the ability to appeal a project to the Land and Environment Court on merit was replaced by a two-stage process that required a second PAC to review the first recommendation. But while it came down broadly in favour of the mine, there were two very tough conditions: that there be no final void (the hole left after mining is done); and that there be adequate offsets.

Strange stuff started happening. A confidential submission provided to ICAC, seen by Crikey, outlines a string of missteps, questionable decisions and interventions that led to the final Maules Creek approval:

  • NSW deputy premier Andrew Stoner recently confirmed, under questioning in Parliament by Labor’s upper house leader Luke Foley, that he has given evidence to ICAC about meetings he held as opposition ports spokesman from August 2010 about Maules Creek with Aston Resources chairman Mark Vaile, former deputy PM. Stoner’s office subsequently told The Sydney Morning Herald he was not under investigation and had “a clear conscience on these matters”. NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham has lodged a freedom-of-information application seeking all documents from the National Party’s Roads and Freight Minister Duncan Gay to do with the coal loader or Tinkler, Vaile, Buildev or Aston and has been pressing Gay in Parliament. At one point Gay responded that asking how many times he’d met Vaile was like asking how many times he’d met with his wife.
  • Aston’s lobbyist on Maules Creek at the time, Liam Bathgate of Australian Public Affairs (now part-owned by Alastair Furnival of junk food fame), was a former NSW National Party secretary close to Vaile and contacted the planning department four times in 2011 related to Maules. He also arranged meetings at which Vaile promoted the loader concept. Buildev had a long-standing relationship with the company (in fact, Buildev is believed to have introduced Tinkler to Vaile). Is it possible Vaile would attend meetings on behalf of Buildev and never discuss Maules, being developed by the company he chaired?
  • Donations made by former Aston chief executive Todd Hannigan and CFO Tom Todd to the National Party, made at the suggestion of Aston chairman (and former Nationals’ leader and deputy PM) Mark Vaile, were never disclosed. The company later pleaded guilty and paid a $20,000 fine. (Note Aston was not a prohibited donor and there is no suggestion these donations were illegal — they simply should have been disclosed during the planning process.)
  • After then-Labor federal environment minister Tony Burke toured the Maules Creek site in late 2012, he grew concerned about the adequacy of offsets and extended the time frame for approval pending further investigation. In an unprecedented act, now-disgraced NSW resources minister Chris Hartcher forced Burke’s hand just days later by leaking a letter indicating the federal government intended to approve the mine subject to conditions.  Burke issued a partial conditional approval saying he had no idea whether the mine would go ahead. This approval was later upheld in court after a challenge by the Northern Inland Council for the Environment.

The federal Environment Department told the Senate estimates hearing earlier this year it was investigating a criminal matter to do with the offsets, but nothing came of it. The conditions set down by the first PAC were dropped and the mine was finally approved with the void allowed (it will form an increasingly salty lake hundreds of metres deep), and construction went ahead.

As The Daily Telegraph reported today, Vaile says he has not been contacted by ICAC. But there is no doubt the Buildev loader could have helped Aston. NSW Treasury official Dominic Schuster told ICAC last week he suspected the loader was all about adding value to the Maules Creek asset:

“I wasn’t necessarily confident about the motives of the Buildev organisation in putting forward this proposal. It wasn’t apparent they genuinely sought to develop a coal terminal on the facility. It was equally possible that they wanted to demonstrate that they could build one on the facility which would enable Aston Resources to increase the value of its coal mine because it was purchased without any coal loading rights so it seemed to me feasible that merely having accessed the right to build one there was value accretive to Aston and Buildev.”

The coal loader and Maules Creek were not interdependent: the mine was targeting first coal by 2014, and Aston feared Tinkler’s loader would be nowhere near ready in time, and went about negotiating its own port and rail capacity at Newcastle.

But in Tinkler’s mind there was one big vision — a vertically integrated coal business from mine to port.

The suspicion forming in some quarters is that an approval at Maules Creek may have been offered to Tinkler as a consolation prize once the loader was rejected. There is no smoking gun, but there is plenty of smoke.

*Paddy Manning is the author of Boganaire: The Rise and Fall of Nathan Tinkler, published by Black Inc and available in bookstores now (RRP $29.99).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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