A confidentiality breach by the federal government’s $5 billion infrastructure body shows it is now considering loaning public money to two new rail lines supporting mining projects.
The unintended leak of classified documents by the vaunted Northern Infrastructure Facility shows it has been approached for funding by the proponents of the Balla Balla project, which comprises a port and railway to the Pilbara Iron Ore project in Western . The port, rail line and a new mine are expected to cost about $6 billion.
To protect the identity of the source, Fairfax Media cannot reveal exactly how it obtained information from the documents. However the method reveals critical shortcomings in the way NAIF handles and secures sensitive information.
The facility’s confidentiality policy states that staff must “keep all confidential information properly secure ??? Any confidential information taken home for work purposes should be properly protected and secured at all times”.
The NAIF is a taxpayer-funded concessional loan scheme designed to boost investment in Northern . NAIF is also considering helping to finance a contentious rail link from the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland’s Gallilee Basin to the Abbot Point coal port, near the Great Barrier Reef.
Derided by critics as a secretive Turnbull government slush fund, the fund refuses to publish board minutes or comment on projects it is assessing, and repeatedly knocks back freedom-of-information requests.
The leaked briefing paper states that BBI Group has approached NAIF to determine if the Balla Balla project, comprising a 162-kilometre rail line and port, may be eligible for assistance. BBI Group declined to comment.
In March this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attended the signing of a memorandum of understanding between BBI Group and China State Construction Engineering Corporation Limited, to build the proposed project.
In a June visit to the Pilbara, WA Mines Minister Bill Johnston reportedly questioned whether it was appropriate for taxpayers to fund commercial projects, saying “it is a very unusual situation where you’d tip taxpayers’ money into viable projects. It’s contrary to free market theory that says viable projects should fund themselves”.
However Mr Johnston said WA should be “in the queue??? if there is free money from the commonwealth”.
In a speech to Parliament in March, former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan said the NAIF board was “stacked to favour mining investments”.
At a Senate hearing in August, NAIF chief executive Laurie Walker said the organisation was “highly transparent” but “certain documents ??? need to be maintained as commercial-in-confidence”, including “information relating to project proponents and their dealings with NAIF”.
NAIF did not confirm the contents of the documents when contacted by Fairfax Media.
Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Nikola Casule welcomed the information’s release.
“It is alarming that a government body can be so secretive about how it chooses to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, yet at the same time be so reckless when it comes to its own confidentiality policy,” Mr Casule said.
Labor’s senator Murray Watt wrote on Twitter that the “only info we get on NAIF is from leaks like this. What other Govt body, distributing billions in taxpayers’ $ to business, is so secretive?”