NAIF faces conflict of interest allegations

Anti-Adani protesters gathered outside the Australian Infrastructure Investors Forum on September 12.

A noisy group of protesters gathered outside the Australian Infrastructure Investors Forum on September 12 to “welcome” its keynote speaker, the CEO of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) Laurie Walker. NAIF Board members are the focus of a campaign by the movement to prevent the massive Adani coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee basin.

Adani has applied for a $1 billion loan from NAIF to build a rail line from the mine to the port at Abbot’s Point. Adani has said funding of this infrastructure project is essential to its proposed operation. Protesters at the Westin were insistent that they would keep up the action until the NAIF rejected the loan.

Far from an independent group of experts set up to oversee the $5 billion agency, members of the NAIF Board have been exposed a number of times for having close links with the mining industry.

The revelation in May of the first possible conflict involving NAIF director Karla Way-McPhail was a trigger for a Senate inquiry into the agency’s operations and governance. The controversial loan would open up Queensland’s Galilee Basin, to the possible benefit of Way-McPhail’s mining services businesses.

The same day Walker addressed the Sydney Forum, the Board again came under fire over potential conflicts of interest. Fresh potential conflicts involving two directors, including its chair Sharon Warburton, emerged after the body was approached about funding a Western Australian iron ore venture.

Balla Balla Infrastructure Group (BBIG) reportedly sought NAIF advice on whether it would be eligible for a concessional taxpayer-funded loan for a rail link as part of its $6 billion venture in the Pilbara. Warburton is also a non-executive director of Fortescue Metals, whose own iron ore mine, rail and port in the Pilbara would be in direct competition with BBIG.

In a statement Warburton said NAIF directors were aware of their obligations to disclose and manage conflicts, and had “significant experience in deciding whether their personal circumstances give rise to an actual, apparent or potential conflict of interest”.

Fellow NAIF director Justin Mannolini is a partner in the law firm Gilbert and Tobin, which BBIG is paying for ongoing advice over the execution of a state agreement with the WA government. Mannolini is also chair of the board of Jindalee Resources, which has an interest in iron and base metal projects in the Pilbara.

Nikola Casule, a Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner, said the revelations of more possible conflicts of interest at NAIF were “disappointing but sadly not surprising”.

“When you fill a board almost entirely with current or former mining executives and ask them to make decisions about distributing $5 billion in taxpayer money, largely to mining companies, you can’t be surprised when you find yourself in this situation,” he said.

“When you combine this with the other potential conflicts within the board, NAIF’s refusal to respond in a substantive way to freedom of information requests and assertions by prominent figures such as the former federal Treasurer that it was set up to operate as a ‘slush fund’, it is clear that the NAIF is not fit for purpose.”

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