Former NSW resources minister Ian Macdonald rushed to open up the Bylong Valley to coal mining despite advice from a top bureaucrat that the process should be more orderly, a corruption inquiry has heard.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Monday was told that from May 2008 Mr Macdonald was pushing his department for information on coal deposits in the Bylong Valley, in central NSW, in a scramble to put a number of exploration licences out to tender.
One of the disgraced minister's former staffers said Mr Macdonald even ignored the advice of Alan Coutts, the respected deputy director-general of the Department of Primary Industries, who was urging the minister to slow down the process.
The Labor MP's then deputy chief of staff, Jamie Gibson, said Mr Coutts and Mr Macdonald had clashed repeatedly over the headlong rush to open up 11 areas of the state, including the Mt Penny tenement in the Bylong Valley.
Mr Macdonald is accused of favouring his former colleague Eddie Obeid by granting an exploration licence at Mt Penny, where the Labor powerbroker and his family owned property.
Mr Gibson told the inquiry that from May 2008 Mr Macdonald had shown a particular interest in Mt Penny and had been the one to decide to open up the area to mining.
It was the speed at which he wanted the invitation-only expression of interest to go ahead that concerned Mr Coutts, who had wanted more exploration work done on the proposed mining areas, Mr Gibson said.
"Was he suggesting that it should proceed at a more orderly and slower opening up, rather than what appears to be the rather expedited time period that was put on these specific areas?" junior counsel assisting the inquiry, Nicholas Chen, asked.
"To my recollection he was," Mr Gibson replied. "He was advocating as well as he could, as his position in his department allowed, to the minister."
"Was he suggesting that the pace at which these were being opened should be far slower?" Mr Chen asked.
"I do remember he was advocating a proper look at the process before it commenced," Mr Gibson replied.
Mr Gibson said the pair "certainly disagreed" often, before Mr Coutts was moved on to head the NSW Food Authority in November 2008.
"Ministerial officers and ministers and departmental heads from time to time have very robust debates," Mr Gibson said.
"And if you mean strongly, do I mean things like swearing and things like that, then yes, that is a natural part of executive government, unfortunately.
"From your observation from the dealings you had with Mr Coutts, did you form the view that something was going to give in the relationship between Mr Coutts and Mr Macdonald?" Mr Chen asked.
"And that was always going to be, I take it, Mr Coutts?"
"Yes," Mr Gibson replied.
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