Ballina MP and minister for the north coast Don Page has refused to say whether he disclosed a conflict of interest, as a BHP-Billiton shareholder, when he took part in Cabinet’s controversial decision to overturn a ban on the exploration of uranium in NSW.
The state government earlier this year overturned a 26-year ban on uranium exploration and last month sought expressions of interest from miners. BHP-Billiton currently has major uranium projects in other states.
Mr Page, who is also local government minister, was grilled over the issue during a budget estimates review committee hearing last Thursday by MLC Shaoquett Moselmane.
In a testy exchange between the minister and the Labor MLC, Mr Page repeatedly refused to say on which issue he had disclosed a conflict of interest in cabinet meetings.
‘I am a bit vague about what I am allowed to declare in relation to Cabinet confidentiality. My understanding is that I am not supposed to say anything about Cabinet confidentiality including whether one has declared a conflict of interest,’ he said.
Mr Moselmane continued, asking Mr Page if he had ever excused himself from a cabinet meeting due to a conflict of interest, but Mr Page refused to talk about it.
Mr Page said he was ‘happy enough’ to say he has previously declared a conflict of interest in cabinet meetings, as it was ‘essentially about process’, but the question on which matter was ‘about substance’ he was ‘not prepared to divulge’.
Mr Moselmane also asked Mr Page if he accepted that the government’s position on uranium mining was ‘out of step’ with the views of people living on the north coast.
‘The government’s policy in relation to uranium exploration is a statewide policy. It has nothing to do with mining uranium. It is only a case of seeing what is out there,’ Mr Page said.
‘Not an issue’
‘There would be very little likelihood of any uranium exploration happening on the north coast. In fact I have not heard of any proposal at any time anywhere in relation to the north coast. In relation to it being a burning issue on the north coast, it just does not rate. It is not an issue.’
Mr Page said he supported the cabinet’s decision to allow uranium exploration but refused to say if he personally opposed it in cabinet at the time.
Mr Moselmane asked if it was ‘appropriate’ for Mr Page to have approved an application for uranium exploration when he held shares in BHP Billiton ‘knowing full well that exploration licences are about to be given’, but Mr Page again refused to say whether he disclosed his shareholding and conflict of interest.
‘Minister, how can the people of New South Wales have confidence in you when you participate in discussions when you have a clear conflict of interest?’ Mr Moselmane asked.
Mr Page responded ‘that is a presumption on your part, which is not founded’.
Mr Moselmane told Mr Page he had ‘declared an interest that you have shares in BHP Billiton, yet you do not disclose it in your meeting’.
But Mr Page said he had ‘already indicated’ he was prepared to concede he had made ‘a declaration in a Cabinet discussion’ but ‘in terms of the subject matter of that declaration, I am not prepared to go there because it is Cabinet-in-confidence’.
Mr Moselmane concluded with ‘Sure. I gave you many opportunities but you refused to answer, Minister.’