Cronyism claim rocks Seeney's office

Cronyism claim rocks Seeney's office


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Darcy Ward has successfully converted rundown land choked with scrub regrowth, lantana and rubber vine into improved pastures and a successful grazing enterprise but now has to hand it to his neighbour.

Darcy Ward has successfully converted rundown land choked with scrub regrowth, lantana and rubber vine into improved pastures and a successful grazing enterprise but now has to hand it to his neighbour.

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Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney's State Development, Infrastructure and Planning Department is under scrutiny after allegations of cronyism and corruption over a lease bunfight at Targinnie, north of Gladstone.

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Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney's State Development, Infrastructure and Planning Department is under scrutiny after allegations of cronyism and corruption over a lease bunfight at Targinnie, north of Gladstone.

The department's ethics committee is investigating the circumstances under which grazier Darcy Ward claims that land he converted from rundown weed-infested scrub into a successful grazing enterprise has been handed to his neighbour.

In return, Mr Ward has his neighbour's lease, which two independent reports described as completely degraded and weed-infested. "They've destroyed us," a distraught Mr Ward said.

At the crux of this is an allegedly close friendship between the neighbour - who has a fencing contract with the department - and two land managers from the department.

"It appears to have been an orchestrated campaign to get two farming families off their land," the Wards' lawyer, who did not wish to be named, said.

The second farming family did not wish to go on the record in case it jeopardised their situation.

The lawyer said the case revealed a possible breach of the Public Service Code of Conduct by two department officers.

Targinnie, north-west of Gladstone, was once renowned as a fruit-growing area, but when a shale oil extraction plant brought with it pollution and noise, the state government bought the properties.

In early 2003, some lots were opened up for tender to lease for grazing purposes through the coordinator-general's office.

This was when Mr Ward, with his partner Julie and their three children, moved to the area where they took on a number of small rundown lots and turned them into a well-managed and well-run single grazing unit.

"I have worked hard for 12 years to transform this and they take it away and give it to someone else."

The Wards are reeling from the decision, which is another blow after dealing with the death of their son, Olympic boxer Billy, in August last year.

Mrs Ward is going through the trauma of packing Billy's possessions as the family has been told to vacate their house - and swap it with the neighbour's.

Mr Ward said he had been assured many times over his tenure that the land would only be resumed for industrial use and this would not happen for at least 15 years.

That time-frame meant he would be able to get a return on his investment.

This had begun to change two years ago when a new land manager had come on the scene, and in January the Wards had been told their lease would not be automatically renewed. A rumour had circulated the district that all seven lease areas - currently occupied by five families - would be granted to one person, who would be Mr Ward's neighbour.

"I called up [the land manager] and asked him if all the leases would be granted to one person, and he said yes," Mr Ward said.

During the conversation, it had also been revealed there would be no interview process and the selection would be made on the applicant's response on the expressions of interest form.

Mr Ward's lawyer said this selection criteria was flawed as it focused on attitude "whatever that means" and ignored land management.

The expressions of interest were called for at the end of March, and less than a fortnight later the Wards were told they had gained a lease in two areas - their neighbour's rundown blocks.

Queensland Country Life inspected the area on Friday and it was obvious (to this reporter) where the Wards' land ends and other leases begin.

"This is what my country used to look like," Mr Ward said, pointing to a paddock riddled with lantana and rubber vine.

The Wards contested the decision, but their case was rejected by the coordinator-general, and they took it to the Supreme Court in June.

The coordinator-general's office offered an out-of-court settlement, which the Wards accepted on the provision that the tender process be reviewed.

A second panel was formed in July and each of the five original lease holders were told expressions of interest would be re-evaluated in relation to the criteria of "attitude" a maximum of three pages could be provided.

"It came down to an essay competition," the Ward's lawyer said.

Again, the Wards were unsuccessful and their evidence, which included independent reports from experts, was ignored.

"If we had done something wrong, I could understand all of this and I would pack up and leave, but we haven't," Mr Ward said.

Although the Wards originally had to vacate their home and land by October 31, they were given until November 15 to organise their stock.

However, on Friday they were told they had until the next day to remove their cattle from the lease, and put them onto their neighbour's eaten-out block.

"The bloke who is getting my block has overstocked his so much that his cattle were starving and getting out on the road; I let him put them on my block so they could have some feed, but some still died ," Mr Ward said.

"These blokes making these decisions have absolutely no idea."

Hours before going to press yesterday, Queensland Country Life received a statement from Mr Seeney.

"I have asked for arrangements regarding these leases to be put on hold until I can fully investigate the situation," he said.

"This morning I will be meeting with my department to receive a full briefing."

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