Dominic Perrottet’s five-man “Catholic Cabinet” rushed through a deal to deliver control of Sydney’s cemeteries, ergo $5bn in capital, to the Catholic Church, in defiance of independent expert advice. Callum Foote reports.
Evidence emerging from Gladys Berejiklian’s ICAC inquiry shows alarming similarities to the way in which senior MPs in the NSW Coalition government are pushing for the Sydney Catholic Archdiocese to be given control over Sydney’s vast cemetery network.
The cemeteries are set to run out of space in under a decade, and its operators are about $300 million in debt. In 2020, the NSW government developed a proposal to amalgamate Sydney’s five cemetery operators into a single efficient operator: OneCrown.
Unfortunately for Archbishop Anthony Fisher, one of these operators is the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT). The amalgamation would effectively wrest control of Rookwood cemetery and other assets away from the CMCT.
Under the government’s proposal, referred to as Option 1 by NSW cabinet, OneCrown would be able to develop the new Macarthur Memorial Park, extending the term of Sydney’s cemeteries until 2045, at which time they could use the excess capital they have amassed over 20 years to buy new land for burials.
Extensive financial analysis has revealed that under option 1, Sydney’s failing cemetery sector would eventually result in a financial boon for the state’s balance book while providing low-cost and efficient burial services for Sydney residents.
Despite a year of intensive Catholic lobbying against the proposal which Michael West Media reported on here, everything was set for Option 1 to be considered on Monday, September 27. That is until Finance Minister, Opus Dei Catholic and former board member of the CMCT, Damien Tudehope, demanded Treasury mock up a last-minute Catholic Option.
Documents revealed to MWM show that Tudehope instructed the NSW Treasury to develop a new Catholic Option on Thursday, September 23. The new option, known as Option 6, was to be considered by the cabinet the following Monday.
In correspondence revealed to MWM, senior officials within the NSW Treasury, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, the office of Property Minister Melinda Pavey and Investment NSW opposed the option.
Among the complaints levelled at Option 6 are that there was zero financial modelling or consultations conducted and that senior government officials had only a few hours to consider the proposal before it was put before cabinet.
Option 6 would give control of the most valuable cemetery assets, such as Rookwood and the in-construction Macarthur Memorial Park, to the Catholic Church, leaving the remainder to OneCrown.
OneCrown would then be forced to immediately acquire and develop 127 hectares of new land, as its remaining cemetery space would be exhausted in a decade.
Handing $5b excess capital to the Church
MWM has been told that initial expert analysis expects the new development would cost the state approximately $500 million, which would have to be spent immediately if the new cemetery space would be ready in time.
As a result, Option 6 would turn what could be a net financial benefit for NSW into a half-billion-dollar liability overnight. Over the next 50-years, Option 6 would hand control of more than $5 billion in excess capital to the Catholic Church.
Investment NSW provided advice on Friday, September 28, that Option 6 did not meet the NSW ICAC’s Direct Dealings Guidelines. The guidelines, instituted in 2018, are for “public sector agencies involved in direct negotiations with external parties to manage corruption risks, but recommends they avoid the practice if possible due to the high level of those risks.”
Perrottet warned by ICAC
Then treasurer Dominic Perrottet was warned multiple times by ICAC that his meeting with senior Catholic lobbyists in 2017 also did not meet with the guidelines.
Since 2017, senior Catholic lobbyists have met Coalition ministers dozens of times to try to avoid amalgamation and ensure the church remains involved in the cemeteries sector, having previously tried to lease the whole sector for $1 billion in 2017 after forming a consortium.
When the ministers met on Monday, September 27, they were presented with the original five options developed by the public service along with the rushed-in Option 6.
Out of the lot, only Option 1 was supported by all government agencies and was in accordance with the ICAC Direct Dealing Guidelines.
Cabinet voted that Option 1 and the rushed Option 6 be referred to the Expenditure Review Committee for further consideration.
A “Catholic Cabinet”
The ERC is now made up of Treasurer Matt Kean as chair, with Premier Perrottet, Finance Minister Tudehope, Nationals Leader Paul Toole and Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello as members.
All five are avowed Catholics. The Expenditure Review Committee is expected to review Option 1 and Option 6 on November 11.
The similarities between Tudehope’s interference with the cemetery decision and Daryl Maguire’s interference with the $5.5 million shooting club grant are striking.
Michael Toohey, a director in the Office of Sport, gave evidence to the NSW ICAC about the “extremely unusual” process of developing a draft submission for $5.5 million to the Australian Clay Target Association in 2017.
Toohey claimed that Maguire’s office demanded that he draft up a proposal for the grant at the last minute and complained that there was a “deficient” business case, which ultimately “didn’t stack up.”
Much the same was said between senior Treasury officials in communication revealed to MWM, in which they make it very explicit that the department does not support Option 6 but was forced to draw it up by Tudehope’s office at the last minute.
Maguire’s clay shooting grant was then referred by cabinet to the Expenditure Review Committee, of which then premier Berejiklian was a part of, for rubber-stamping.
Option 6 has followed the same path, yet it remains to be seen if Perrottet and the Expenditure Review Committee will approve the Catholic bid against the advice of numerous branches of his own government and independent consultants.