‘I have no issue with trucks’: Chapman defiant on conflict claims

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman’s department asked her to consider whether she had a conflict of interest relating to her role in deciding the fate of a £40 million port proposal on Kangaroo Island, where she owns land – but she maintains she has no issue with the prospect of trucks hauling timber near her property.

Vickie Chapman gives evidence this morning. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The deputy premier is today facing a parliamentary inquiry examining whether she had a real or perceived conflict relating to her decision to veto the plan by Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers, and whether she misled parliament or breached the ministerial code after the decision. The inquiry heard yesterday that land owned by Chapman lies adjacent a privately owned forest under contract to KIPT and a road that would have been used as a major haulage route under the port proposal.

In her opening statement today, Chapman said that “as the first law officer I am and have always been cognisant of my legal obligations” regarding “lawfully and impartially delivering results”. Chapman said that while successive assessment reports recommended there could be provisional approval for the project, there remained “reserve areas that required further assessment” and which were never resolved. She said she and her siblings had received the land near the haulage routes as part of the estate of her father Ted, who died in 2006.

Chapman said she had always declared her landholdings, noting that the property identified passed to her after her brother’s death by suicide in 2017, and saying she was “absolutely disgusted” that this issue should be politicised. “There is not a day that passes that I and my sisters wouldn’t have our brother back rather than those extra parcels of land,” she said. Under questioning from the inquiry’s assisting counsel, Dr Rachael Gray QC, Chapman was asked if she accepted that maps show property owned by her – which she said was rented as an AirBNB – was within “one to two kilometres” of a proposed haulage route.

“When you were considering the Smith Bay port proposal, did you understand that if it was approved it would mean trucks across the road from your property and removing wood?” Gray asked. “I accepted that would happen irrespective of whether the port was approved or not,” Chapman responded, saying truck haulage was commonplace on Kangaroo Island. “If it was dealt with at all, it was going to be in trucks – so there was nothing of significance [about it],” she said.

“Whatever they do with the timber  – whether they chip it, put it in posts or whatever – they need to use a truck… the question of whether they had a port at this particular location was almost academic as to whether they would have haulage of wood.” Responding to a suggestion that the haulage would have been a “bigger, more extensive operation” if the port had been approved, Chapman said “an enormous amount of timber [had] already been cut down and put in a truck”. Gray asked if she would concede the property’s proximity to the haulage route “could create a perception of a conflict of interest”, to which Chapman said: “Well, I don’t – but if it did I’d have expected somebody would have written to me and said so.”

She said “nobody raised it with me” until SA Best MLC Frank Pangallo suggested she had a conflict in parliament earlier this year. However, Chapman also told the inquiry her department had twice asked her to consider the possibility that she had an actual or perceived conflict – initially when she took over the Planning portfolio in mid-2020, and later when an assessment report into the port project was received. She said she “was advised what my obligations were at the time of the transfer” from predecessor Stephan Knoll, saying: “I was asked to turn my attention to that at the time, and I did.”

Asked whether she sought Crown Solicitor’s advice about whether she may have a conflict, Chapman said: “I can’t recall specifically in relation to whether that occurred at that time.” “I had general advice at the time of the transfer of the portfolio to me.” However she confirmed a ministerial colleague, Michelle Lensink, had been designated as a potential acting minister in the event that she recused herself from the decision.

“I assume [that was] because they’d been informed I was considering whether there was any conflict of interest,” she told the committee. However, she insisted she was satisfied no such conflict existed, and continued her oversight of the decision. Chapman said she had recused herself form two unrelated projects on the grounds of a perceived conflict – both related to her eastern suburbs electorate of Bragg.

But she maintained that there was no reason to do the same for the port proposal. “I was asked to turn my mind to that [question] and I did do that,” she said. “No-one in my department ever asserted that I had a conflict of interest or perceived conflict – they asked me to turn my mind to that issue.

“At no time had someone in my department said to me, ‘you’ve got land on KI so surely you must be conflicted’.” Chapman insisted that “if there was an assertion or a perception that this was a problem” she would have expected KIPT to raise it at the time, noting that former director Shauna Black publicly backed her after Pangallo raised the conflict claim. Black is scheduled to give evidence to the inquiry in coming days.

However, Gray put it to the Attorney that it was her obligation to identify a potential conflict, “not that of the developer”. “Yes, and I’ve indicated that I don’t agree that I had a conflict or perceived conflict,” Chapman replied. Asked whether she had realised that “the haulage routes were that close to property owned by you”, Chapman said: “Not specifically, no.”

“I didn’t even see it as a problem,” she went on. “I think this idea that in some way a haulage route from a producing property is of some concern to me as landowner because it’s in some proximate area is bizarre. “There’s been timber there since my father had the property 40 years ago… there are trucks that come in and out of these properties, whatever they produce, on a regular basis.”

Labor MP Tom Koutsantonis interjected that they would do so at lesser volumes because of a decision she had taken, to which Chapman responded: “All I can say to the member is the issue in relation to haulage is not a matter of concern to me.” “In the 16 years of my early life [on KI] it was obvious that everything came in and out on a truck – this is a normal part of life,” she said. “I suppose the thing that seems rather bizarre to me in this process is [the idea] that haulage routes are of some significance…

I don’t live in the island [but] forestry has been there for 30 or 40 years – it’s been cut down, hauled, made into posts… “In addition to timber, which I don’t know much about, there are a lot of other industries on KI [and] people that live there understand that everything comes and goes in a truck unless it can fit in a suitcase. “This is the real world out there – it’s necessary, wherever you live…

I don’t have a problem with trucks, I have no issue with trucks. “I live in Tusmore, I have 3000 trucks a day drive by my house – trucks are trucks.”

'I have no issue with trucks': Chapman defiant on conflict claims

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Asked whether she could concede that the situation “creates at least a perception of conflict of interest, when you’re operating in effect a tourism venture” adjacent the haulage route, Chapman said: “No, I don’t accept that.” “It’s a bit like saying transports that go out on the ferry can’t coexist [with tourists],” she said, before describing the juxtaposition of travellers and livestock on the KI ferry, noting “if you’re lucky you get to the other side of the channel without getting sheep urine all over your windscreen” but arguing the island remained SA’s premier tourism destination. Asked whether it would have been better to declare a perceived conflict “with the benefit of hindsight”, Chapman said: “Certainly not.”

However, Koutsantonis told Chapman in the committee: “In my years in parliament I’ve never seen a clearer example of a conflict of interest.” “It’s clear to anyone looking at this that you should have recused yourself,” he said.

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