As the state’s first gasfields sheriff sorting out bitter disputes involving controversial coal seam gas projects worth billions of dollars, grazier John Cotter’s appointment was always going to be controversial.
But it’s not been his proposed extraordinary powers, such as being able to demand private financial records and order miners and land owners to convene for dispute resolution, that have ignited the most extreme complaints about his appointment to chair the Gasfields Commission.
Instead it is the business interests of his son, John Cotter jnr, that have fired up the critics.
Ever since his appointment in April, the Lock the Gate Alliance anti-coal seam gas group has been raising questions about a Queensland company, the Flinders Group – a private business founded by Mr Cotter’s son.
The firm offers planning and project management for property and infrastructure operations, including in the mining sector.
With offices in Brisbane and Rockhampton, the rapidly growing company is seeking business in the gas sector and already has work with a contractor for the multibillion-dollar Queensland Curtis Project, which is being developed by the major miner Queensland Gas Company.
The Curtis project involves expanding existing coal seam gas operations in the Surat Basin and transporting the gas via an underground pipeline to Curtis Island near Gladstone.
McConnell Dowell Constructions and Consolidated Contracting Company are working on the main export gas pipeline to run 415 kilometres from the Surat and Bowen basins to Curtis Island.
Such relationships between Mr Cotter jnr and the coal seam gas industry have infuriated the president of Lock the Gate, Drew Hutton, who believes it makes for ‘‘an intolerable situation’’ and a conflict of interest for Mr Cotter snr.
‘‘I just think the choice of John Cotter [snr] is a most appalling, short-sighted decision by government,’’ he said.
"The last thing people expected was for them to appoint someone who has a very close relative who does business with the coal seam gas industry.’’
Mr Cotter snr has repeatedly denied a conflict of interest, even telling Queensland Country Life that he has never had any connection to Flinders Group.
‘‘I have no relationship and have never had any relationship with his [John jnr’s] company. He stands on his own feet without any assistance from me. I have been accused in the past of having a conflict of interest but there is not a cent of my money in his company,’’ he said in the interview on May17.
However, there has been a link in the past to Mr Cotter jnr’s business when it was operating under the name PAD Partners, Fairfax Media's The Sun-Herald has learnt.
From 2009 to November 2010 PAD Partners, which changed its name to Flinders Group in late 2010, provided the planning and negotiation services for a controversial 499-head feedlot to be approved on Mr Cotter snr’s family grazing property at Kinbombi, about 180 kilometres north-west of Brisbane.
Residents had objected, fearing the feedlot would lead to pollution of the town’s water supply, bad odours and a negative impact on the nearby Kinbombi Falls, a picturesque picnicking area and tourist drawcard.
A neighbour, Glenda Pickersgill, said there were still concerns about the development on all the original issues. As well, there was ‘‘the feedlot’s potential use of some 14.5 megalitres of water per year’’, she said.
Despite objections, the Gympie Regional Council approved the project in November 2010 after making some changes to the application.
Last week Mr Cotter snr confirmed his son’s company had helped get the approval but said that he had received a bill for the services which had been settled ‘‘two or three years ago’’ and that he thought PAD Partners ‘‘had nothing to do with Flinders’’.
He also said that his understanding of the definition of having no connection to a business meant that he did not have a financial interest or shareholding in the business or any control over its affairs.
‘‘That’s what I would call a connection: if you were a shareholder or I had lent him some money or got it established or had some directorship,’’ said Mr Cotter snr, who is the former head of Agforce Queensland.
He also has denied that his son’s business would cause any conflict of interest and said ‘‘of course’’ he would stand aside should any issues involving his son’s company come before the commission.
Mr Cotter jnr, who is listed on the Flinders Group website as being a company director and head of strategy, said he had got a junior planner to do the feedlot application.
He denied any potential conflicts of interest over the work saying he did not bill his father.
‘‘That’s news to me,’’ he said when told of his father’s claim of settling the bill.
He also said he did not believe his father should have to stand aside ‘‘in the highly unlikely event’’ that the commission was involved in dealings with the Flinders Group.
Mr Cotter jnr said he would be the one standing aside.
‘‘In the highly unlikely event that something came up, I can give you a rock-solid guarantee that I would have absolutely nothing to do with it,’’ he said.
Mr Cotter snr’s Gasfields Commission Queensland is earmarked to have wide-ranging powers, including being able to recommend to government whether gas companies can co-exist with landowners, compel landowners’ companies and other parties to hand over financial details and other information relevant to their businesses and advise ministers on what information should be made public, and order parties to convene to resolve disputes.
It is also likely to have powers to review regulatory frameworks and legislation and compel government agencies to provide information within specified time frames, not to mention being able to review existing dispute resolution processes.
The Deputy Premier, Jeff Seeney, has endorsed a draft of the powers that are due to go through the parliamentary process this year.
Mr Seeney rejects any conflict-of interest concerns and believes Mr Hutton and the Lock the Gate group have ‘‘a lopsided agenda to shut down an industry that is vital to Queensland’s future’’.
‘‘They are not interested in finding a balanced approach,’’ he said.
Mr Cotter snr had 30 years’ experience providing leadership and high level of negotiation skills across all levels of government, public institutions and private industry facilitating appropriate solutions for many diverse issues, Mr Seeney said.
He said Mr Cotter snr had been appointed by the previous government as the independent chairman of the Surat Basin CSG Engagement Group.
Despite the controversy, the Flinders Group and Mr Cotter jnr are in growth mode and the company has some powerful friends.
On December 2, 2010, the then lord mayor, Campbell Newman, (now the Queensland Premier) launched PAD Partners’ new identity as the Flinders Group, according to a statement on the company’s website.
And Flinders Group’s managing director, Shane McDowall, in the same statement noted the company would play a major role in several projects including the burgeoning liquefied natural gas industry in the Surat and Bowen basins.