Barrister Alex McKean says the long awaited Integrity Commissioner advice to Ray Stevens over his cable car plans for the Gold Coast suggests Ray Stevens has misled Parliament and the public over his clear conflicts of interest.
Mr Ray Stevens MP has a long history of involvement as a proponent of a cable-way in the Springbrook National Park in the Gold Coast Hinterland. In 1998, the project, then named ‘Naturelink’, was rejected by the Beattie Government after a campaign by environmentalists.
Mr Stevens caused a furore when he announced to the Parliament, on 30 October 2014, that he owned shares in ‒ and was a consultant to ‒ a company which would be seeking to build a cableway in the same location.
This Parliamentary declaration by Mr Stevens certainly appears to have been the unalloyed truth.
What appears rather more murky is the state of Mr Stevens’ affairs when he sought advice from the Integrity Commissioner and whether that advice was affected by any failure on behalf of Mr Stevens to provide full and frank disclosure.
While Mr Stevens was happy to trumpet that his involvement in the cable car project had been cleared by the Integrity Commissioner on 30 October 2014, that advice has only recently come to light, allowing Stevens’ claims to be tested. What it reveals may provide some explanation for Mr Stevens’ resistanceto its publication, which has even led him to resort to interpretive dance when confronted on the issue.
Firstly, it appears from the advice that Mr Stevens did not provide accurate information to the Integrity Commissioner regarding the state of his interest in the cable-car project at the time he sought the advice in September/October 2014. To the extent this is correct the advice itself, which does somewhat equivocally approve Mr Steven’s involvement in the project, is called into question.
Mr Stevens registered the company which appears to be the vehicle for the cable-car project,Neranwood Views Pty Ltd, on 3 October 2013, coincidentally at a time when Parliament was considering legislation designed to open up national parks for ecotourism projects. The only other officer of Neranwood was a Gold Coast accountant and long time associate of Mr Stevens, Mr Owen Yong Gee.
Almost a year later, on 26 September 2014, Neranwood issued 300,000 ‘A’ class shares. These were all bought by a company called Ruray Pty Ltd ‒ an entity entirely controlled by Mr Stevens MP ‒ for the princely sum of $30. Ruray had been brought onto existence by Mr Stevens a week earlier.
The only other shares in Neranwood at the time ‒ 10 ordinary class shares ‒ were bought by Mr Yong Gee’s company Marylebone Pty Ltd for $10.
That appears to have been the state of the shareholdings in Neranwood at the time Mr Stevens MP sought advice from the current Integrity Commissioner, Richard Bingham, in October 2014.
The advice refers to telephone conversations with Mr Stevens between 22 and 27 October 2014 and other information provided by Mr Stevens during that period or earlier.
It is noted that Mr Stevens provided the following information to the Integrity Commissioner:
- the cable-car project had become a reality with the purchase of a take-off site on 20 October 2014;
- a ‘consortium of business people’ had formed a company for the application process;
- he was an investor in that company, through a related entity;
- he was also an advisor to the consortium;
- he currently held one-sixth (or one-seventh) of the shares and was entitled to a board position;
- he had elected to continue in that board position;
- the company would be seeking a lease to permit construction of infrastructure and allow passage of the cable-car, on and over government-owned land, with necessary operating licenses and approvals.
MISREPRESENTION OF PROJECT OWNERSHIP AND CONTROL
It was not until November 2014 that another four directors joined Neranwood and Mr Stevens relinquished his directorship. The company changed its name to Gold Coast Skyride Pty Ltd (GCSPL) the next day. Then in December 2014, all of those additional directors, along with Mr Yong Gee, bought 300,000 ‘B’ class shares each, through various companies.
So, it appears Mr Stevens misrepresented the state of affairs to the Integrity Commissioner at the time he sought the advice, painting a picture of what he perhaps intended to do, rather than what was the actual state of affairs at that particular point in time.
It is unknown at this point what voting privileges attach to the different classes of shares in GCSPL. In the corporate world, ‘A’ class shares are usually ‒ though not always ‒ superior to and have more voting rights than ‘B’ class shares. If it transpires that Mr Stevens retains effective control of GCSPL by his sole ownership of all of the ‘A’ class shares, this a significant consideration that should have properly been taken into account by the Integrity Commissioner in preparing his advice. Only Ray Stevens or one of the other directors are able to clarify this matter, as ASIC does not require this information.
The Integrity Commissioner’s advice contains the following paragraph:
The extent to which your directorship confers control of the project is a relevant consideration in determining whether a conflict of interest may arise i.e. beyond that which could arise from a simple shareholding. In this case, you are one of six or seven directors, and thus I do not consider that your directorship in itself confers any such additional control of the company, or consequent obligation.
ASIC documents shows that at the time of seeking the Integrity Commissioner’s advice, entities owned solely by Ray Stevens and his accountant were the sole owners of the Gold Coast Skyride project, not a minor shareholders as he’d claimed. [CLICK HERE TO SEE THIS DOCUMENT IN FULL AS A PDF]
NON-DISCLOSURE OF ROLE IN PROJECT WHILE IN MINISTRY
Secondly, an issue arises as to whether Mr Stevens has misled Parliament in relation to the disclosure of his interests in the project to the House on 30 October 2014.
On that date, Mr Stevens declared his interest in Neranwood and his role as a consultant to the consortium to Parliament. His explanation was considerably less fulsome than that provided to the Integrity Commissioner and he could not resist spruiking the cable-car project, which he devoutly hoped would be considered
“… on its individual merit, free of bias, possibly political point-scoring or interference.”
The key part of Mr Stevens’ declaration was his statement that:
“I advised the Integrity Commissioner of my proposed involvement in this project well and truly before my acceptance of any role in the project and he has cleared my involvement and capacity to be involved whilst being a member of parliament and an assistant minister in the Newman LNP government.”
While it is true Mr Stevens did seek advice from the former Integrity Commissioner in 2012, he apparently did not seek updated advice as to the impact of his being an assistant minister until October 2014. That was in circumstances where he had been in the role for two years, during which time he had set up Neranwood (now GCSPL), as a vehicle for the cable-car project, in October 2013. It can also be assumed he had been involved, as one of only two directors of the company, in the acquisition of the land for the ‘take-off site’ earlier than October 2014.
ROLE IN PASSING LEGISLATION ENABLING SKYRIDE
Thirdly, an issue arises about Mr Stevens’ involvement, as manager of government business and assistant minister in the Newman Government, in the passage of legislation apparently designed to facilitate projects like his cable-car and to increase the profitability of such ventures.
It appears Mr Stevens continued to have hopes of resurrecting the cable-car project in 2012, seeking advice from the former Integrity Commissioner in August of that year about his continuing involvement in the project and future plans with respect to it.
Mr Stevens was appointed leader of the house and manager of government business upon the Newman Government taking office in March 2012. These roles conferred on him the responsibility formanaging and scheduling government business and thereby having an intimate knowledge of the legislative program the Government intended to pursue, as well as knowing when legislation would be introduced.
Mr Stevens was subsequently appointed assistant minister for e-Government on 11 October 2012, which, while it did not confer a seat in the cabinet, did make Mr Stevens a member of the Government — indeed a senior member, given his other responsibilities.
On 13 November 2012, the Newman Government introduced the Nature Conservation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. The explanatory notes to the Bill baldly stated its objectives are to‘enable authorisation of privately operated ecotourism facilities’ in national parks.
The notes go on to say that ‘the tourism industry’ had identified a demand for ‘privately funded, purpose built, low impact’ infrastructure ecotourism projects, which sounds awfully like to the cable-car project Mr Stevens MP had proposed back in 1998.
Later, the notes say that ‘feedback from tourism proponents’ had identified a need for, among other things, the ability to acquire an interest in land against which finance can be raised, as well as the ability to develop
‘… permanent tourism infrastructure in national parks.’
“… significant economic opportunities are currently being lost due to restricted access to these areas for private investment in ecotourism infrastructure.”
He said that leases of up to 30 years would “address investor concerns around security of tenure”,with renewals of another 30 years ensuring “a long-term approach to sustainability”.
If anyone in the House at the time of the debate on the second reading of the Bill, on 18 April 2013, had any doubt as to whether a cable-car project at Springbrook might have been affected by passage of the Bill, this would have been dispelled by the contribution of Ms Ros Bates MP, member forMudgereeba — a neighbouring electorate to Ray Stevens’ Mermaid Beach.
Ms Bates made particular reference to Springbrook National Park, located in her electorate, saying that the Bill would “open up Springbrook for everyone” and would “redress the hysteria and the Greens and Labor over Springbrook.”
She then said that she was sure the
“… hysteria will commence yet again about a cableway in Springbrook.”
Mr Ray Stevens MP was, just before 7pm on 18 April 2013, one of the 62 MPs who voted to pass the 2012 Bill.
Not content with that legislative intervention, later in 2013, the Newman Government introduced theNature Conservation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2013 (Qld). The explanatory notes to the 2013 Bill explained that the objectives of the Bill were to increase access to national parks and other public lands, achieve red tape reduction, and streamline legislative processes.
The explanatory notes said the current object of the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Qld), which, strangely enough, is ‘the conservation of nature’ was a
‘… narrow definition [which did not reflect] the Government’s commitment to achieving recreational and commercial outcomes in the management of protected areas.’
When National Parks Minister Steve Dickson MP introduced the Bill to the House on 20 August 2013, his explanatory speech to the House referred to the first stage of “landmark reform” in the area of national parks, in April 2013, which allowed
“… for ecotourism facilities on National Parks.”
Mr Dickson MP said the Bill was the second stage of that reform which would
“… better provide for increased recreation and ecotourism opportunities”
On 29 October 2013, when the 2013 Bill was read for the second time, Ms Bates MP again referred to the fact that Springbrook National Park would now be opened up for ecotourism and said that
“… allowing people to experience the amazing resource that is Springbrook National Park we sure its future.”
At the end of the debate on the 2013 Bill, Mr Stevens MP again voted in support of it passing.
In reaching the conclusion that Mr Stevens could retain his shareholdings in October 2014, the Integrity Commissioner considered that, as assistant minister for e-government, Mr Stevens did not have any direct portfolio responsibility for matters such as the cable-car proposal. Mr Bingham said any conflict of interest could therefore only arise with respect to the ‘broad public trust’ Mr Stevens had assumed as an assistant minister.
It is perhaps a failing of the integrity regime in Queensland that it was not seen as a breach of that broad public trust that Mr Stevens had already been involved in bringing legislation to the House ‒ and voting for it ‒ that would make his pet cable-car project more likely to be approved by changing the objects of the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Qld) and making it more likely to attract investors, and hence more lucrative, by introducing 30 plus 30 year leases for such projects.
The onus now appears to be on Mr Stevens to declare what degree of control his ownership of the ‘A’ class shares in GCSPL confers over that company, and whether he intends to rectify the apparently inaccurate information he provided to the Integrity Commission and the Parliament in October 2014.
It may also be time for the Integrity regime in Queensland to be amended, so it may be able to prevent a development proponent not only from being involved in an application process about a proposal, but also from being involved in any way in changing the law to make that project more likely to be approved and, thus, worth more when the approval is given.
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