Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Canberra life was less certain before searchable computer records.

The Department of Finance has revealed that it only became aware in January last year that the ACT government had no title to the land on which the Googong Dam is located.

The acting head of the department’s Asset Management Group David Yarra told a Senate estimates hearing yesterday that until then it was “very strong received wisdom” within the department that it was in the process of transferring the land to the ACT.

The Commonwealth acquired the Queanbeyan River dam from NSW in 1973 in order to ensure Canberra’s water supplies. It has long been believed it intended to transfer the land to the ACT on self-government in 1988.

Mr Yarra told the Senate’s Finance and Administration Committee that in September 2005 while working on completing the transfer, one of his officers began to have doubts about whether the Commonwealth ever did intend to transfer the land.

“We became suspicious, progressively. It took some time for a number of us to form the same view as one of our officers who was doing most of the work on it and to confirm that view,” he said.

The investigation involved an ever-widening examination of archival documents...

“We had done a pretty good analysis on all the logical files going back 15 or 20 years, but then we turned to other files not actually logically related to the Googong Dam,” Mr Yarra said.

“What we turned up was an answer to a question by the then Senator [Graham] Richardson at the time saying it was never the intention of the Commonwealth to transfer the ownership of the land. The intention was only that the ACT to manage the Dam.”

“We launched further inquires and spoke to the drafter of the [ACT self-government] legislation and the person who prepared the drafting instructions, and we confirmed from a number of angles that was never the intention to transfer the title of the land that was purchased in 1973. It had always been intended that the ACT manage the dam on behalf of the Commonwealth through an agreement,” he said.

It was only in January 2006 that the department examined the archives in detail. It briefed the Finance Minister Senator Minchin in June 2006 and took legal advice from Clayton Utz in July 2006.

Mr Yarra conceded to the committee that he had other departmental officers had in the past created many official documents acting as if the land was to be transferred to the ACT, but he said they were wrong to do so.

“At that time our understanding of government policy and government intent was that the land be transferred and we were acting consistent with that. We were wrong. The policy was not that. Therefore as public servants we would always act of course consistent with government policy and intent. If it changed, then we change our position,” he said.

Mr Yarra told the committee that it was beyond legal doubt that the Commonwealth, not the ACT owned the land. “It may that another outcome should be the case, but the fact is that we own the land, whether that was an appropriate outcome is up for other people to discuss,” he said.

The ownership of assets on that land such as pipes, houses and the dam wall itself was less clear because of “vagueness” in the archival documents.

In January the NSW Opposition announced a plan to use Commonwealth ownership of the dam to pipe water from it to Goulburn without consulting the ACT government.