In October 2016, well before the Western Sydney airport land scandal exploded into public view, the conservationist Ross Coster was sitting in a committee room, tucked away in the halls of parliament house.
Coster, the head of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, had travelled south with representatives of two local residents’ groups to share their concerns about the proposed airport development with Paul Fletcher, then responsible for urban infrastructure, and Josh Frydenberg, the then environment minister.
To his surprise, he arrived to discover two of the wealthiest landholders in the region, Mark Perich and Louise Waterhouse, were also in the room, among others.
Both spoke glowingly of the project.
The tenor of the meeting, Coster says, shifted completely, turning from one of opposition and concern to support and praise.
“I thought we were ambushed. I thought the three of us were going to meet the minister,” Coster says. “I had no idea there was going to be other people there and that all of the other people would be pro-airport.
“It put us in a difficult position. He let everyone talk for two minutes around the table and at the end of it, the consensus you got was the airport was marvellous.”
Privileged access for those ‘with a bucket of money’
It’s no great surprise that Perich and Waterhouse were consulted over a development happening right on their doorstep.
Fletcher’s office says the meeting was part of “entirely appropriate” extensive consultation for such a major project, and a spokesman for Frydenberg, responsible only for environmental assessments, says the minister imposed a strict set of more than 40 conditions on the airport one month after the meeting.
But amid two separate and ongoing scandals over the way major developers, with significant financial interests in the hugely valuable land surrounding the new multibillion-dollar airport, gained access to government officials, the meeting puts a fresh spotlight on what critics say is an uneven playing field.
“They are local landholders with a bucket of money so they get invited along,” Coster says. “I’m not making any money out of this, I just want the airport to go away.”
The meeting fed perceptions of government favouritism towards the wealthy, through privileged access and backroom deals.
Those perceptions seem validated with the surfacing of two scandals, unravelling in parallel, concerning the way land is being handled around the new Sydney airport.
The infrastructure department’s shocking decision to buy land owned by the Perich family, billionaire dairy farmers and property developers, at a hugely inflated price of $30m has prompted a federal police probe and a review by Vivienne Thom, the former inspector general of intelligence and security.
The investigations are zeroing in on the department’s Western Sydney unit, which handled the purchase, examining undeclared conflicts, one-on-one coffees with unidentified landowners, and glaring failures in normal valuation processes used in commonwealth acquisitions.
One bureaucrat has already been stood down for breaching the public service code of conduct, while another has been moved to a different role within the department.
Suspected breach notices released following Senate estimates hearings this week revealed that one employee is alleged to have “selected, or cause to be selected” a property valuer “who was suggested by the Leppington Pastoral Company”. The same employee is also accused of failing to make a record of a coffee meeting with a relevant Western Sydney landowner.
During estimates this week, Simon Atkinson, the head of the infrastructure department, agreed that it looks as though officials attempted to cover up the inflated valuation.
“I am trying to clean it up,” he said during the hearing.
Meanwhile, in New South Wales, an ongoing investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption has painted an alarming picture of the way the former state Liberal MP Daryl Maguire sought to give Waterhouse access to the highest rungs of power as she lobbied for crucial planning changes to improve the value of her land.
Maguire has not been alone in lobbying for landholders near the airport.
Guardian Australia revealed this week that the former state Liberal MP Chris Patterson – who as the local member was actively involved in the Western Sydney airport proposal – began lobbying for the area’s major landholders, including the Leppington Pastoral Company, within months of leaving parliament.
Meanwhile, Waterhouse was able to secure the ears of top infrastructure department officials and her local federal MP, Angus Taylor, as she lobbied – in the end unsuccessfully – for favourable treatment.
Revelations about so-called “backroom” access to politicians for major landholders has enraged residents surrounding the new airport development. For hundreds of them, finding a sympathetic pair of ears in government has been a Sisyphean task.
‘All the big guys get whatever they want, and we’re just too little’
When Peter Srzich moved to the region 30 years ago, he was seeking a slice of country life for his new family.
He remembers arriving in the area to find a decade-old sign nailed to a tree, railing against the proposed Western Sydney airport.
“The airport was on the agenda at the time when we bought,” he says. “However, it was on again, off again, there was no real commitment.”
In recent years, as plans for the airport crystallised, Srzich joined with other families on the site’s southern boundary in an attempt to make the most out of their land.
They collectively proposed their land be transformed into a southern gateway business area development and asked for expedited zoning approval from the state government last year.
They weren’t successful. Despite lodging a detailed, thorough submission to the state Coalition government, the group received a six-sentence explanation late last year of its outright rejection of their idea.
Srzich lives next door to land owned by the Leppington Pastoral Company, which did achieve a favourable zoning.
He says he has nothing but respect for the Perich family. They’re simply business people, doing what they can to maximise the value of their land.
His gripe lies elsewhere.
The recent scandals have shown Srzich that federal and state governments are giving remarkable access to the wealthier landowners. Politicians, both current and former, are lobbying on their behalf. And those in positions of power seemed to be falling over backwards to accommodate them.
“What I’m peeved about is that we’ve got politicians and now obviously senior bureaucrats involved in all of these sort of shady deals, and there’s no transparency,” Srzich says.
“It’s all about access and the access they get is going to be fawning.”
Last year, at an annual breakfast hosted by the Greater Narellan Business Chamber, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, gave a speech in which she talked up the area’s potential.
The breakfast was a who’s who of business leaders in south-west Sydney. Patterson was there, as was his new lobbying partner, the former Labor premier Morris Iemma. So too were members of the Perich family, and after her speech Berejiklian posed for photos with Tony Perich.
It wasn’t the first time they’d met. In 2017, at the opening of a Perich-owned shopping centre in Narellan, Berejiklian praised the family as representing “everything that is good about people in New South Wales and Australia”.
The family have donated to both sides of politics in the past, and they remain widely respected in Sydney’s west. But for the residents now fearing they will be stuck living next to an international airport thanks to unfavourable zoning decisions, the Leppington Triangle deal has left a sour taste in their mouths.
Les Turner, whose home in Bringelly will be, he says, “so close to the airport you can put your suit on and jump the back fence”, was entertaining multimillion-dollar offers for his property from businesses before the rezoning announcement.
“But now they don’t know whether something is going to happen in five years, 10 years, who knows,” he told Guardian Australia this week.
“Everyone just wants the same treatment [as the major landholders]. All the big guys get whatever they want, and we’re just too little.”