(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

The newly installed NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet is moving quickly to rebadge himself as a man of the centre, but there remains the unexplained — and as yet unresolved — saga over how he, as state treasurer, has handled the demands of the Catholic Church.      

The issue is Sydney’s cemeteries and who controls their management. It is also a story of power, influence and how the church fights for its interests.

The sharp end of the story is a claim that Perrottet as treasurer pushed the merits of proposals backed by the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney — despite an assessment by senior bureaucrats from two separate departments that the church’s business case did not measure up.  

Why does it matter?

A year ago a statutory review by independent consultants had no doubt that the only way to fix dire problems with Sydney’s cemeteries was to centralise the management under one government-run agency called OneCrown.

For the Catholic church the plan has meant ceding control of a large chunk of Sydney’s cemeteries to the New South Wales government. It objects to that as secularising death and has been campaigning hard to stop it from happening. The church and its organisation, the Catholic Cemeteries Board (CCB), have developed counter proposals. 

There is a parallel claim that Perottet and others in the government may have run close to breaching ICAC rules on direct dealing — rules which dictate how the government should deal with a prospective supplier of services to avoid corruption.

Apart from Perrottet, its friends in the government reportedly include Finance Minister Damien Tudehope. Tudehope started his political career on the conservative right of politics as spokesman for the Australian Family Association, an offshoot of B A Santamaria’s National Civic Council (NCC).

Tudehope was also NSW president of the NCC before a home was found for him in the Liberal Party in its conservative religious base in Sydney’s north-western suburbs. Perrottet, as Australia is beginning to learn, has a traditional conservative religious approach to issues such as abortion, voluntary assisted dying and same-sex marriage.

In response to Crikey’s questions, Tudehope said: “Any input or discussions I have held with my colleagues on this matter have had nothing to do with my faith and everything to do with getting the best result for the people of NSW — something every single member of this government works towards every day.

There is a process to work through and I feel confident we will reach an outcome that is in the best interests of families and communities across NSW.”

But is the church’s plan in NSW’ best interest?

Not according to NSW government bureaucrats. 

Investment NSW has concluded it would cost “significantly more” than having a single state authority manage cemeteries. This made it “difficult to demonstrate value for money”.  

Investment NSW officials have also concluded that adopting the church’s model may constitute direct dealing with the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, a church-linked organisation which manages four Sydney cemeteries — in part because there was “no evidence” that the CCB was the only party able to meet what is needed to operate Sydney’s cemeteries. In fact, the Catholic organisations “may be unable to meet the needs of other faith groups”.

Despite this, the Perrottet-run NSW Treasury has continued to promote the church proposal. A Treasury document backing it was put to cabinet at the end of September. A senior bureaucrat noted that the submission came at short notice and had no input from other departments. The official also noted the proposal did not meet any criteria set out by independent consultants.

Crikey has sought comment from Perrottet but has received no response.

Lebanese Muslim Association concerned

Last month the Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA) sent a legal letter to the government which threatened action over the “non-competed, unvetted and unsolicited” proposals which the Catholic Church had put to several ministers and government agencies in an attempt to persuade them to abandon the idea of an independent, state-run body.

Muslims are one of several faith groups concerned about the dwindling supply of burial grounds in Sydney.

The LMA claimed the government’s “repeated, exclusive dealings” with the Catholic archdiocese constituted a breach of ICAC’s rules on direct dealing, and that ICAC should be made aware. It also pointed to a series of meetings between the government and representatives of the Catholic bodies which had taken place before, during and after the official review of cemeteries.

It started in July 2017 with a meeting with Perrottet when he was treasurer and industrial relations minister. Between August and September 2017, there were further meetings between Catholic-led consortium members and officials of Treasury and Perrottet’s office.

Since 2018 there have been several meetings with other ministers as the Catholic Church pressed its case. In June this year the church met then-premier Gladys Berejiklian. Two days later, then-deputy premier John Barilaro intervened with a plan which allayed the church’s anger, providing a guarantee that it would “continue to manage and operate cemeteries in Sydney”.

This “peace deal” came with a further proposal from the church to Barilaro demanding two consecutive 99-year leases of cemetery land, the transfer of almost $140 million in perpetual care fund to a Catholic company, and a 100-year exclusive operator agreement.

The independent report commissioned by the government — the 11th Hour report — showed that the government-owned trust, currently managed by the Catholic Cemeteries Board, would generate excess cash of about $1.2 billion over the next 25 years, and more than $5 billion in 50 years.

Links at the top

There has been both an open door and a revolving door between the NSW government and the organisations which manage Sydney’s cemeteries.

Tudehope is a former governor of the CCB and a member of its board. He resigned in 2015, a month before he entered NSW Parliament — into a seat vacated by former NSW attorney-general Greg Smith, who was afterwards appointed to the CBB as chair. To complete the trinity of moves, Perrottet shifted into Tudehope’s seat of Epping when Tudehope became a member of the NSW upper house.

Sydney’s Catholic archbishop, Anthony Fisher, has also been on the front foot with the government — and vocal in the pages of The Australian as well as on Sky News, where he appeared in clerical robes and cross advocating the church case (and gaining a sympathetic ear from Peta Credlin).

The campaign escalates

It’s a measure of how much is at stake that the Sydney archdiocese has shifted into full campaigning mode to have the government abandon the recommendations of the independent review. 

One-time Liberal minister Michael Photios — now among Australia’s most powerful lobbyists — has been brought in, along with veteran PR professional Tim Allerton, one of the best-connected operators in Sydney. 

The campaign has also gained a legal opinion from no less an authority than Geoffrey Watson SC — counsel assisting the ICAC in a 2011 investigation into Liberal campaign funding — to the effect that there is no case of “direct dealing” to be made in the conduct of the Catholic organisations. 

Watson is a board member of the Centre for Public Integrity and an adjunct professor at Catholic tertiary institution the University of Notre Dame. He has declined to comment on whether or not he has any conflict of interest, citing client confidentiality.

The archdiocese has threatened to campaign in state seats where there is a high proportion of Catholics, and has also savaged NSW Minister for Water, Property and Housing Melinda Pavey, who is directly responsible for cemeteries.

Pell’s man steps into the frame

In a media statement the church wheeled out one of its biggest guns, Danny Casey, to unload on Pavey. Casey is a director of the CCB, alongside former NSW attorney-general Greg Smith. More to the point Casey is also the former consigliere to Cardinal George Pell and spent time with Pell at the Vatican before returning to Australia. 

Casey said the board was “shocked” that Pavey and her “faceless bureaucrats” alongside a “fringe religious association” would attempt to “undermine” a commitment made by the retiring Barilaro via “spurious” claims. (That “fringe organisation”, the LMA, is a not-for-profit organisation which, it says, is responsible for around 80% of Islamic funerals.)

“It is no surprise that Minister Pavey is seeking to merge the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust with OneCrown, which through many years of mismanagement is facing a $160 million shortfall while the CMCT has about the same sum in surplus, perpetual care funds to ensure many faith groups can bury their dead,” Casey said.

The message is clear from the top: don’t mess with the Catholic Church. 

Pavey was a possible contender to take over National Party leadership from Barilaro. She didn’t make it. Perrottet may also reshuffle ministerial positions — good luck with that. Crikey has been left in no doubt that Pavey will not fare well if the church has anything to do with it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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