A NSW government agency says an investigation cleared one of its employees of claims she offered inducements to traditional owners to cease objecting to the $1 billion-plus plan to raise the Warragamba Dam wall.
WaterNSW late last year issued a statement declaring allegations made to an upper house inquiry that Indigenous leaders were promised jobs and greater access to the land behind the dam in return for co-operation to be “unsubstantiated”, citing what it said was an independent investigation.
Gundungurra Traditional Owners Kazan Brown (right) and her daughter Taylor Clarke, on land that will be inundated by floodwaters if the Warragamba Dam Wall is raised.Credit:Wolter Peeters
Kazan Brown, a Gundungurra elder, had told the committee that a member of the consultancy Niche and a WaterNSW staffer had used a July 2019 meeting to imply their support would be rewarded.
“[They said] if the project was to proceed then they would give our people access to areas of the catchment that we are currently locked out of,” Ms Brown said. “They even went on to say that this means that we would be given employment if we would agree to the project proceeding.”
“I was angry. We should not have to choose between having access to our sites and destroying them,” she said, before stating later. “I thought it was like having a lolly or something dangled in front of me.”
The investigation, though, found that “to the extent Ms Brown thought the Registered Aboriginal Parties [RAPs] were offered jobs and access, she has misconstrued the comments made to her (which were about standard practice on government and large-scale infrastructure projects) and the ordinary next steps if the project were to proceed”.
The Herald has obtained a letter from WaterNSW to the Committee with new details of the investigation, conducted by Sparke Helmore Lawyers. These include that it interviewed five people, including Ms Brown, “with direct knowledge or involvement in the Aboriginal cultural heritage assessment component of the proposal”.
These included WaterNSW’s project director David Harper, manager Emma Hately, the former WaterNSW staffer who attended the July 2019 meeting Kate Kernaghan, and Ms Regal.
Ms Brown submitted written answers to the subsequent investigation, while the eight other Indigenous members who attended the July 2019 meeting were not listed as being among those interviewed by Sparke Helmore.
The report itself is “subject to legal professional privilege”, the letter by acting chief executive Andrew George, said.
Warragamba Dam spills during the March floods. The Berejiklian government is expected to release the long-awaited environmental impact statement into the dam wall plan.Credit:WaterNSW
A separate letter from lawyers for the Niche consultant, Renee Regal, to the Upper House inquiry, also adamantly rejected the claims, and requested her response be published by the Committee.
“Ms Regal denies those allegations,” the letter said. “Ms Regal has never made a statement or representation to Ms Brown, or any of the RAPs involved in the project, that access to land would be provided conditional upon, or in any way linked to, the position taken by the RAPs in relation to the project.”
“Statements or representations to that effect have never been made by anyone else in Ms Regal’s presence,” the letter added.
Independent NSW MP and chair of the Warragamba Inquiry Justin Field said the claims about inducements were “serious allegations”.
“It is clear that Traditional Owners have not provided free, prior and informed consent for this project to proceed, but the government continues to press ahead as if that is no impediment to the project,” he said. “This is the type of approach that led to the destruction of Jukkan Gorge and the public expect that those mistakes are not repeated.”
Harry Burkitt, general manager of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, said surveys for Indigenous culture covered only about a quarter of the area to be impacted if the dam wall were to be raised.
“The assessment process is an entirely tokenistic exercise driven by a political agenda to approve the project,” Mr Burkitt said.
Stuart Ayres, the Minister for Western Sydney, did not address the inducement claims, saying only that the project’s environmental impact statement would be out in the middle of the year and would be “a robust and transparent assessment”
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