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Raids and public hearings in Victoria’s biggest anti-corruption inquiry yet

Kat Mann is a neighbour to the 133-hectare site in question in Cranbourne West. She welcomed the IBAC investigation and said she had always sensed something was askew in the rezoning push.

“I’m glad [the investigation] is happening. Out here it just seemed that money always wins. Maybe it won’t this time after all.”

‘Undue influence’

Casey, which takes in swelling suburbs such as Cranbourne, Berwick, Clyde and Hallam, is one of the fastest growing municipalities in Australia. The IBAC investigation is looking into the murky meeting of property, planning and political money on Melbourrne’s fringe that insiders from both sides of politics acknowledge has dogged proper planning in Victoria for years.

Well-placed sources have confirmed that IBAC has raided the houses of councillors and has requested and received large numbers of Casey council documents going back years, including before the 2014 election to the period of the Baillieu-Napthine government.

The terms of reference for Operation Sandon include looking at the transparency and integrity of planning within Victoria. IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich, QC, said the hearings would consider whether “public officers” had been “improperly influenced through donations, gifts, pro-bono services or other hospitality”.

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Senior government officials aware of the scope of the investigation say it is “far reaching” and likely to be uncomfortable for both the ALP and Liberal parties, including at the state level.

Among the development figures set to appear before IBAC is Mr Woodman, a multi-millionaire planning consultant whose company Watsons Pty Ltd has long prided itself on winning difficult planning approvals, especially in Melbourne’s south-eastern green wedge.

Last year The Sunday Age reported on mounting concern among Casey council staff – who oversee more than a billion dollars in building approvals each year – about the influence of Mr Woodman and his close business associate, lawyer and planner, Megan Schutz, on behalf of their developer clients.

Mr Woodman’s client list has included, or includes, the Fox, Ansett and Baillieu-Myer clans, as well as Tony Madafferi, the man police have alleged to be Melbourne’s mafia boss. Especially prominent in the Casey area is developer Wolfdene. Mr Woodman’s son Heath is a business partner of Wolfdene director, Michael Goldthorp.

Donations and other in-kind support have long been a key part of the Watsons strategy for planning success. Mr Woodman has donated helicopter rides for auction at fundraisers.

John Woodman.

John Woodman.Credit:Gary Sissons

In response to questions from The Age this week, Mr Woodman said he and his company were “fully cooperating with IBAC’s examination of historic decisions involving the City of Casey” and that he was “willing and open to participate” as a witness in public hearings.

“Having worked in the City of Casey for more than 30 years, I have become really attached to the communities that I have helped build,” he said, adding that in that time “relationships have been developed with many councillors”.

“I am a trusting and caring person and I have trusted that each councillor I worked with would make the right decisions for the needs of the community,” Mr Woodman’s statement said.

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The response is a far cry from that when The Sunday Age reported on his influence at the council. On that occasion he issued threats of defamation action against the newspaper and three journalists. In August Mr Woodman launched defamation action against the City of Casey and staff over documents relating to him that were circulated internally.

Questionable resolutions

At the 2014 state election Mr Woodman was the single biggest property industry donor to the Liberal Party, including a generous $80,000 to campaigns of Liberal candidates and Casey councillors, Geoff Ablett and Amanda Stapledon. Leaked Liberal party documents show how fundraisers for Ablett and Stapledon were dominated by developer and property interests with projects before the council, including Woodman and Schutz.

Both candidates lost the 2014 poll and returned to a council which, in any year might deal with hundreds of Watsons-related planning applications. Cr Ablett failed to return calls from The Age this week and Cr Stapledon, the outgoing Casey mayor, said she was ill and could not talk.

Last year Cr Stapledon said she had always acted with “strictest probity” in her decision making. Cr Ablett said at the time that he took his responsibilities under the Local Government Act “extremely seriously”.

Local Liberals insist Watsons has also donated to current Casey mayor Liberal member Susan Serey – an ally of former south eastern upper house MP Inga Peulich – who was also an unsuccessful state Liberal candidate in 2014 and again in 2018.

Cr Serey has refused to confirm or deny any financial contribution. This week she refused to be interviewed by The Age but in a written statement said she had always reported local and state campaign donations as required under relevant laws.

At the time of the 2014 and 2018 elections, political donations of any amount were legal and The Age does not suggest otherwise. The Andrews government has since reformed state electoral laws to clamp down on donations at the state level, and is moving to do the same for local government.

Watsons has also bankrolled Labor over many years, and Mr Woodman is, or was, an active member of Labor’s fund-raising arm, Progressive Business. Ahead of the 2014 election Watsons’ donations to Labor included thousands of dollars to south eastern MPs including Martin Pakula (current racing minister and former Attorney General), Jude Perera (member for Cranbourne, now retired) and Judith Graley (member for Narre Warren South, now retired).

The problem of influence of developers and their consultants at Casey became especially problematic last year as the council struggled to appoint a permanent chief executive officer after the departure of long standing CEO, Mike Tyler.

Casey councillor and former mayor Sam Aziz.

Casey councillor and former mayor Sam Aziz. Credit:James Taylor

Through 2018 the council’s planning resolutions, championed by former mayor and Liberal Party member Sam Aziz, were especially contentious and appeared to favour the Woodman-linked Wolfdene. Cr Aziz is on extended leave from the council until the end of the year. When contacted he refused to talk to The Age.

So questionable were some resolutions that the council received confidential legal advice warning of “capricious” and “unlawful” decision-making that risked losing public and state government confidence “with respect to planning matters in particular”.

Consultant Megan Schutz.

Consultant Megan Schutz.

Council staff also complained about the pressure from Mr Woodman and Ms Schutz, leading to a memo from a former chief executive noting staff concern about “bullying and harassment” by the pair and a temporary ban on Mr Woodman communicating with some council staff.

The rezoning issue

One council planning decision from recent years has proved especially controversial. A parcel of 133 hectares of Cranbourne West farmland had been zoned commercial as part of a Casey employment strategy, but the owners, including construction giant Leighton Properties wanted it rezoned for a much more valuable residential development. Mr Woodman’s company Watsons helped steer the rezoning push, along with Ms Schutz.

Valuers and planning experts say the rezoning, had it been approved, would have delivered a $50 million windfall to the property owners. Leighton Properties, a subsidiary of former Leighton Holdings, has since renamed the CIMIC Group in the wake of international corruption allegations.

Early in 2014, the council rejected the rezoning push, but in 2015, after the state election – and to the amazement of senior council staff – it backflipped to support it. One argument for the U-turn was that an unusually well-resourced resident action group, Save Cranbourne West Residents, opposed commercial-industrial development.

Last October, The Sunday Age revealed that the group had been funded by CIMIC and that its website was officially registered in March 2015 by Ms Schutz.

Momentum for the rezoning also came from local MPs, including Mr Perera and Ms Graley who had received donations from Watsons. Mr Perera has confirmed lobbying for the rezoning after being approached by Mr Woodman’s close associate, Ms Schutz. This week, Mr Perera, who retired at the 2018 election, said he knew nothing about the forthcoming IBAC public hearings and had not been contacted.

Ms Graley did not respond to calls and messages. Last year Mr Pakula said he never lobbied about the Cranbourne West rezoning and had not been asked to. Ms Schutz could not be contacted for this story.

Resident Ms Mann welcomed news that the Andrews government looked likely to retain the commercial zoning of the West Cranbourne land. “You can’t build that many houses and not provide employment opportunities,” she said.

Donations and fundraisers

For many years Watsons donated to local Labor MPs through the fundraising functions organised by well-connected veteran ALP insider and lobbyist, Phil Staindl. Watsons is a major client of Mr Staindl who has confirmed helping on the Cranbourne West rezoning push.

Mr Staindl organised a 2014 fundraiser for Mr Perera, Ms Graley and Mr Pakula at Crown casino. Senior ALP figures say Mr Staindl has been summoned to appear before IBAC. He refused to talk to The Age about Operation Sandon.

Premier Daniel Andrews and planning minister Richard Wynne.

Premier Daniel Andrews and planning minister Richard Wynne.Credit:AAP

In the final days before the Andrews government went into caretaker mode in November 2018, and coinciding with inquiries from The Sunday Age, Mr Wynne shelved his long-awaited decision on the Cranbourne rezoning until after the election.

Last week and with the IBAC hearing looming, Mr Wynne’s planning department quietly released for public consultation a study looking at whether outer Melbourne has sufficient industrial and commercial land to facilitate much-needed jobs in the outer metropolitan area.

The report found that the Cranbourne West rezoning would reduce the stock of industrial land in Casey by over 20 per cent, and called for the Leighton land to be left as commercial-industrial. This provides Mr Wynne with planning reasons to finally refuse the Leighton rezoning.

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In a statement to The Age Mr Wynne officially defended the Cranbourne West rezoning process as “entirely appropriate”. He said more strategic work was required about the need for industrial land before a decision was made. CIMIC refused to comment on the rezoning push and the likelihood that, after five years, it will be unsuccessful.

One local resident, who did not want to be named for fear of being sued, recalls watching with incredulity the expensive Save Cranbourne West campaign that included misleading billboards depicting factories and smoke stacks on a site which had been planned as a high-tech hub.

“I always thought that it all looked dodgy,” the resident told The Age this week. “I always wondered where the money came from.”

For further insight into to that, all eyes will be on IBAC’s public hearings starting on November 18.

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