'Conflicts of interest' delay monitoring of dredging project
THE advisory panel overseeing a multimillion dollar environmental research and monitoring program in Gladstone Harbour has suffered "significant probity and governance issues" amid concerns over conflicts of interest within the panel.
Chaired by CQ University Professor Marnie Campbell, the panel was created to oversee a $7 million Environmental Research and Monitoring Program for Gladstone Ports Corporation's 46 million cubic metre Western Basin Dredging and Disposal project.
Its primary role is to advise the GPC on research and monitoring projects to monitor, manage and offset potential impacts of the dredging program on the regional marine environment, listed threatened species and the Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
An APN Newsdesk investigation has confirmed members of the panel have submitted research proposals to be funded under the 10 year ERMP the panel supervises.
However, neither Gladstone Ports Corporation nor Prof Campbell would reveal which specific panel members had submitted tenders for contracts under the program, or details of members' remuneration or the cost of projects associated with the program.
A ports spokesman said all details of spending related to the panel and the program it oversees were commercial-in-confidence.
It is understood delays arising from the conflicts of interest have contributed to the ports corporation not meeting Federal Government timelines for monitoring of marine mega fauna in the harbour and surrounds.
Prof Campbell said the panel was working towards ensuring the ministerial conditions on the dredging project and ERMP were met.
"We operate under a clear policy and set of procedures regarding conflict of interest and due to the set up of the ERMP we must communicate all advice to GPC who then take action or no action," she said.
The environmental management of the dredging program has come under scrutiny in recent months, with the Federal Government setting up an Independent Review of the Port of Gladstone in response to a request from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
In its submission to the Independent Review, the GPC wrote the program was inefficient and that large amounts of money were spent on administration, "without significant progress having been made on the delivery of the projects themselves".
"The establishment of a group of researchers to develop monitoring and research programs has created significant probity and governance issues," the submission reads.
"This largely stems from the fact that most of the ERMP panel members are submitting proposals to be funded through this program."
The ports corporation wrote the governance of the monitoring program and advisory panel could be significantly improved by establishing an independent panel to oversee the program and "precluding the members of that panel from submitting proposals to do projects under the program".
Additionally, as a state government organisation, the department would expect that GPC is adhering to the required state procurement and probity guidelines.
The panel has a conflict of interest policy, approved by Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, which aims to ensure members are not involved in decisions regarding project proposals they may be directly or indirectly involved in.
However, the original conditions approved by Mr Burke did not include any external corporate governance structure to oversee the operations of the panel, adding to uncertainty surrounding the conflicts of interest.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities confirmed it was aware that "at times panel members may have perceived conflicts of interest with some projects".
But she said the department understood the conflict of interest policy was being followed and panel members were fulfilling their role consistent with Commonwealth conditions.
"Additionally, as a state government organisation, the department would expect that GPC is adhering to the required state procurement and probity guidelines," the spokeswoman said.
A ports spokesman said all tender processes were consistent with relevant state government procurement and probity policies.
He said the probity and governance issues that arose was that there was a limited pool of appropriately qualified experts from which to draw on for research projects.
"This means in some situations the experts that GPC is relying on are unable to fulfill the tender role or the evaluation role and you need to seek another expert who is not conflicted, but with such a small field this is sometimes difficult and it has caused delays," he said.
"So the issue has not been that the panel has been unable to be diligent and effective, the issue is when you define independence where the conflicts shouldn't be involved in the assessment, the difficulty is with such a small group of people in a small field that is sometimes difficult."
He said the GPC was pushing for a more effective tender evaluation process "so that the conflict issue either doesn't arise or is able to be dealt with so the process can move forward quickly".
Both GPC and the environment department said the panel was working to complete the most urgent "Tier 1" research programs, despite delays to the marine mega fauna surveys.
The ports spokesman said another factor in the delays to the surveys was the timeframe for the dredging project, which was reduced by 15 months from an original three-year proposal.
"But clearly the panel has a life of 10 years so it was always planned that a large number of studies would be done post-dredging and they will continue to be done once the Tier 1 projects are in place," he said.
However, the ports submission to the independent inquiry, described the 10-year commitment to the environment under the ERMP as "a very onerous condition".
It is understood the panel, the department and GPC were in discussions to find a way to improve corporate governance of the program.
Despite the delays, a departmental spokeswoman said the department was "satisfied that GPC intends to meet all of their conditional requirements".