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Probe into conduct of Environmental Defenders’ Office amid Barossa gas pipeline saga shrouded in secrecy

Dan Jervis-Bardy
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Tanya Plibersek and Jonathon Duniam.
Tanya Plibersek and Jonathon Duniam. Credit: The Nightly

A probe into whether the Environmental Defenders’ Office breached the terms of its taxpayer-funded contract during the Barossa gas pipeline legal saga is shrouded in secrecy, with the Federal Government refusing to guarantee its findings will be publicly released.

It can be revealed the Federal Environment Department has also outsourced the review to a private legal firm, but is refusing to explain why.

The Opposition said handballing it was “beyond belief” and renewed calls for Labor to end all Federal funding to the environment litigation firm.

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The review was ordered after the Federal Court savaged the conduct of the EDO as it tossed out a bid to halt Santos’ Barossa gas project.

Justice Natalie Charlesworth accused the EDO — which represented Tiwi Islanders in the drawn-out legal battle — of confecting evidence and coaching witnesses.

The Nightly has obtained the letter Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek sent EDO chief executive David Morris a fortnight after the January 14 verdict, in which she encouraged the firm to treat the criticisms “seriously” and “act to ensure there is no repeat of this kind of behaviour”.

“As with any organisation in receipt of public funds, the Australian people, quite rightly, expect the EDO to exhibit the highest ethical and professional standards. That is my expectation, too,” Ms Plibersek said in a February 2 letter, released under freedom of information.

Labor has allocated $8.2 million over four years to the EDO, restoring Commonwealth support for the organisation after this was axed under the Coalition.

Ms Plibersek made it clear Labor still backed the organisation despite the court’s findings, telling Mr Morris that the Government “firmly support the right of ordinary people and civil society to access justice, including through the EDO”.

“We expect organisations charged with such important work to act responsibly and with integrity at all times,” she said.

Mr Morris and EDO chair Bronwyn Darlington responded on February 7, assuring Ms Plibersek that it took its professional obligations “very seriously” and was carefully considering the court’s findings.

The minister asked her department to investigate if the EDO’s conduct breached the terms of its grant agreement.

Department secretary David Fredericks told Senate estimates on February 12 that the review had “just commenced and is ongoing”.

In the two months since there have been no public updates about the status of the probe.

However, it has emerged, via a response to an estimates question on notice, that an “independent external provider” was conducting the review rather than the department itself.

A department spokeswoman confirmed that an “independent legal provider” had been brought in but refused to disclose the name of the firm or explain why it was needed.

The department was noncommittal when asked if the findings would be publicly released.

“Once the review is complete, the department will consider next steps,” the spokeswoman said.

Last month, the EDO announced a panel of independent legal experts to review its own practices after the Barossa saga.

The review — to be led by barrister Tony McAvoy — will make recommendations on working with First Nations clients and communities, including in court cases involving cultural heritage.

Shadow environment minister Jonno Duniam said it was “beyond belief” that the Government was paying for an independent investigation when Justice Charlesworth’s findings were so “clear and damning”.

“Instead of prolonging yet another of her secretive processes — and hiding behind it — she (Ms Plibersek) should immediately make the results and costs of this review public,” he said.

Senator Duniam said Ms Plibersek should follow the lead of Liberal leader Peter Dutton, who has promised to stop Federal funding to the EDO if the Coalition returns to power.

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