A FURIOUS Primary Industry and Fisheries Minister is adamant he has “nothing to hide” despite leaked emails and bank statements showing he was preparing to invest more than $630,000 with a Vietnamese company given the green light in 2014 to build Australia’s largest dragon fruit orchard in the Northern Territory.
The 12 pages of documents, which have been disseminated to the media by Willem Westra van Holthe’s estranged wife, demonstrate a personal business relationship between the Member for Katherine and CT Group president Tran Kim Chung.
In May 2014, CT Group signed a project facilitation agreement with the NT government to grow 10,000 hectares of dragon fruit in the Top End.
Emails sent between the Member for Katherine and Mr Chung in the 16 months following the signing provide clear evidence that a relationship between the men evolved, with Mr Westra van Holthe agreeing to become a shareholder in a CT Group development called Space Ship 1 at a cost of $633,718.
Bank statements show Mr Westra van Holthe took out a $650,000 margin loan for “Vietnam investments” on September 29, 2015 and, while a share offer was signed the following day, he told the Katherine Times he did not proceed with the deal.
Conflict of interest denied
Mr Westra van Holthe added that his personal relationship with CT Group had not affected his Primary Industry and Fisheries portfolio, including in advocating for the dragon fruit project, and that he had not created a conflict of interest.
“I did have an intention to invest with the CT Group but, after some pretty careful consideration, I decided not to go ahead with it,” he said.
“I didn’t go ahead with any investments ... over in Vietnam for a whole bunch of reasons, the least of which was the potential for raising a conflict of interest.
“There’s no need to disclose an interest until it exists and I don’t have any legal or financial interest in the CT Group.”
Under the Legislative Assembly (Members’ Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards) Act 2008, Members of the Legislative Assembly are required to “avoid conflicts, or apparent conflicts, between their private interests and their official functions”.
I didn’t go ahead with any investments ... over in Vietnam for a whole bunch of reasons, the least of which was the potential for raising a conflict of interest.Primary Industry and Fisheries Minister Willem Westra van Holthe
But Mr Westra van Holthe said he believed there was no conflict of interest – actual or apparent – because CT Group had only provided “one trip from the hotel to the airport” and that either he or his new Vietnamese partner had paid for accommodation during his personal visits to the country.
He did, however, admit that he had timed some his meetings with CT Group officials to coincide with trips to Vietnam on government business.
“When I’m working and spending taxypayers’ money, I’m working for the NT government, for the people of the Territory,” he said.
“What I do in my private time is completely separate.
“In knowing that I was going to be in Vietnam anyway, I did organise the trip to be there earlier to conduct personal business, and that was paid for separately by me.
“Accommodation was provided by my partner, my new partner, over in Vietnam.”
‘Disgusted’ estranged wife leaked documents
The government is yet to investigate Mr Westra van Holthe’s claims but he said “hand on heart” he had not mislead Parliament or misused taxpayer funds.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said angrily.
”[It] will be up to the Chief Minister if he sees the need to seek some further information from me and, if he does, I’ll be happy to sit down with him.
”I’ve got nothing to hide.”
The Member for Katherine slammed his estranged wife for releasing the documents, but could not rule out that her actions were in some way politically motivated and linked to last year’s failed leadership challenge.
“I’m disappointed, in fact, disgusted, that things like my personal bank statements have been leaked to the media,” he said.
“It’s very hard to second guess a motive for what’s going on; clearly this is a very personal smear campaign designed to damage me politically and personally.”