No impropriety’ says mayor

By Zoe McMaugh

‘‘A few things were done in the wrong order, but there was no impropriety.’’

That was the finding of an internal review into Edward River Council’s handling of the failed Ausway College and Murray Valley Industry Park proposal in 2017, according to Mayor Norm Brennan.

The review was prompted by questions from a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, resulting in an article in Sunday’s edition.

The article drew attention to the fact the Australian-based, Chinese government backed education provider was offered a lease to the Crown land managed by the then Deniliquin Council without first going through a tender process.

The partnership was instigated when the former Deniliquin and Conargo Shire Councils were in administration, pending their merger, and completed by Edward River Council in February 2017.

A 20 year lease agreement, offering an extension of a further 20 years, was signed in early 2017, subject to NSW Government approval and development application processes.

A Chinese delegation made the trip to Deniliquin to sign the document and a memorandum of understanding. The deputation included Guizhou Province’s United Front Work Department deputy minister Maoai Wang.

Earlier in the year, a delegation of Deniliquin High School students was invited to Guizhou Province as part of the educational partnership.  Cr Ashley Hall, who was then administrator of the merged council, made the trip with them. 

It has since been suggested the way the partnership was handled may open the door for the Chinese Communist Party to build influence through local councils and bypass the Federal Government.

The SMH report followed an announcement a week earlier that the Morrison Government would have the power to cancel any state, territory or local government project that would go against Australia’s national interests.

Edward River Council general manager Philip Stone confirmed the review was undertaken after council was alerted to concerns regarding a proposed lease at Murray Valley Industry Park.

‘‘The week-long review of council and administrator records dating back to 2014 shows that there were some process issues, but decisions were made transparently,’’ Mr Stone said.

‘‘There were some administration errors identified by the review with tightened procedures now in place.’’

The Pastoral Times reported in early 2017 that Ausway was invited to look at the field station as a potential base for its college expansion by Ray White Real Estate principal Jeff Shand, who was a Deniliquin councillor and a member of both the MVIP management committee and Edward River Council Local Advisory Committee.

The former Deniliquin Council had previously sought expressions of interest to lease the MVIP, none of which got off the ground, according to Cr Brennan.

In May 2018 we further reported the proposal had been withdrawn, having been advised that funding for the facility could not be secured.

The SMH article, however, reported the Chinese government withdrew and Department of Industry consent was withheld after an objection from Deniliquin’s Ian Wall.

‘‘The indications are the tender process was a piece of theatre,’’ Mr Wall told the SMH.

‘‘There was a requirement for Edward River Council to run a fair, open and competitive tender process in regards to leasing Crown land for which they were the legal trustee.  They did no such thing.’’