including allegedly corrupt payments of almost $1.2 million to two Casey councillors and the showering of councillors and state MPs and candidates with cash and gifts.
The documents show that Mr Wynne’s department repeatedly advised him against agreeing to Casey Council’s request for a rezoning process for the Cranbourne West site, the bulk of which was owned by construction giant Leightons and Chinese-based developer Dacland.
Valuations have shown that residential rezoning could have boosted the value of the site by $150 million.
In July 2015 a senior planning officer advised Mr Wynne that “no strategic justification” had been provided for the rezoning from employment to residential use.
The department also wrote to the City of Casey stressing there had been no strategic justification for the rezoning other than the requests by landowners.
The documents show that both the government and the Casey council planning officers were advised against the rezoning by government agencies including the Melbourne Planning Authority (since renamed the Victorian Planning Authority), the Department of Economic Development and VicRoads.
Five months later, in December 2015, Mr Wynne was again warned the rezoning process was “not strategically justified” by the then executive director of statutory planning, who argued that Mr Woodman’s proposal was contrary to state, metropolitan, regional and local planning policies, all of which promoted employment generation in job-starved areas such as Casey, one of the fastest growing municipalities in Australia.
In the December 2015 brief, the department also highlighted that the Victorian Ombudsman had raised concerns about Casey Council and its relationship with Mr Woodman’s Watsons Pty Ltd and potential conflicts of interest for councillor Geoff Ablett through his relationship with Mr Woodman.
In evidence to IBAC late last year, it was revealed Cr Ablett had received financial benefits from Mr Woodman through a number of commercial links. Mr Woodman had even made $15,000 in disguised payments to pay off Cr Ablett’s credit card.
Despite the warnings and lack of strategic justification, Mr Wynne authorised the process in December 2015, which included consideration by an independent planning panel. The panel supported the rezoning but in a 2018 brief, Mr Wynne’s department stressed that key government agencies including the Victorian Planning Authority remained opposed.
The documents show that in September 2018, Mr Wynne was seeking a compromise that would allow him to support rezoning but on a smaller scale.
He called for another brief from his department “providing a modified version of the amendment for approval”.
But soon after and just weeks before the 2018 election, Mr Wynne deferred his decision, subject to a review of the need for industrial land in suburban Melbourne to provide jobs.
At that time The Age was preparing stories about Mr Woodman’s outsized influence at Casey Council and his donations to Labor MPs who had been strong advocates of the Cranbourne West rezoning.
Mr Woodman was also in the process of pouring $150,000 into Labor’s election campaign as part of his strategy to secure the rezoning.
In April this year, Mr Wynne finally rejected the rezoning, citing the findings of a metropolitan review of the need for employment land.
Opposition planning spokesman Tim Smith said the documents showed Mr Wynne had ignored the advice of multiple government agencies, including his own department.
“This corruption scandal could have been stopped years ago, had Richard Wynne done the right thing and refused [planning amendment] C219,” he said.
Mr Wynne has repeatedly refused to be interviewed about the Cranbourne West rezoning.
In a written statement on Thursday, he defended the rezoning process. “This proposal was independently and rigorously tested through the planning process and every part of that process was appropriate.”
Public hearings by IBAC in the Casey scandal ran from November to March but were postponed because of public health concerns over COVID-19.
Royce Millar is an investigative journalist at The Age with a special interest in public policy and government decision-making.
Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age and has reported extensively on the underpayment of wages, corruption, business, politics and the labour movement. His reporting has won a number of major honours including Walkley awards. He has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.