Why Is There No ICAC In The ACT?

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Corruption or potential corruption does not happen only in New South Wales. It is systemic, a consequence of the political and economic system we have.

Once elected, politicians are divorced from any direct control by those who elected them. In such a system some politicians will be tempted by corruption to enrich themselves and entrench their power. In a band of thieves the head thief is very powerful. Eddie Obeid comes to mind.

The ALP's embrace of neoliberalism and the philosophy and practice of the 'free' market has as a concomitant the seeming need for money to oil the wheels of commerce.

It is no surprise then that it becomes acceptable for some Labor politicians to play in the money market of politics in ways that advantage them over their rivals.

The ACT government, its politicians and public servants, may be ripe for corruption. I am not suggesting they are, but would suggest the possibility is there. The same systemic pressures on NSW politicians and public servants are on ACT politicians and public servants.

Clearly some in the ACT government are beginning to sense the dangers. With new rules to be drawn up by September 18, the ACT will have the toughest lobbying register in the country. However, since few paid lobbyists actually lobby ACT politicians, this move, while welcome, will have little impact. Most arm twisting of ACT politicians is done by interested groups or businesses.

What about property developers, a group who seem to be at the heart of many of the ICAC revelations in New South Wales?

In that State there is a ban on property developers contributing funds to political parties. The reason? The possibility of property developers influencing the decisions of Ministers and others, including through contributing to their election and other funds, is just too great.

Banned property developer contributions have been one of the wellsprings for ICAC, yielding the scalps of a number of New South Wales politicians.

There is no such ban on property developer contributions to political parties in the ACT. Why not?

It is not as if there is no development going on in Canberra. I am not making any accusations, but the ICAC hearings in NSW must prompt the question as to whether we need some way to ensure transparency in development activity in the ACT.

Surely it is better to adopt the precautionary principle here and ban property developers from contributing to ACT politicians and parties?

For example, lease variations have raised important questions in recent times, especially in relation to clubs and the redevelopment of land they hold.

Would not an ACT ICAC help alleviate some of the concerns associated with the process for approval of such redevelopments?

The light right proposal is another example. Again let me stress I am not suggesting any impropriety.

I am talking about a potentiality and the need for transparency to ensure that our polity is operating on the highest standards possible without a hint or whiff of corruption, so that ordinary citizens can have confidence in our politicians and public servants.

For example, if the light rail proposal goes ahead there will be major redevelopment of Northbourne Avenue (including various government flats along there) and the racecourse.

Who stands to benefit from such redevelopment? Among others, developers.

According to returns lodged with Electoral Commission in 2013, the ACT ALP received a little over $1.5 million in payments required to be reported. For the Liberals the figure was a little under $1 million, and for the Greens over $650,000.

These figures include local party federal accounts but there is no requirement that the money be spent on federal elections.

We can get a sense of some of the links from these donations. What we can't tell however is the underhand deals ICAC in New South Wales is revealing, those which seem specifically aimed at buying influence and profitable outcomes for the contributor.

And of course, the other source of potential concern, public service decision makers, are not covered by the political party donation disclosure rules.

Can an ACT ICAC improve the confidence we ACT citizens have in our local politicians and public servants? I believe so. Such a body should be top of the list of priorities for the ACT Labor-Greens government.

If it is not, then voters would be entitled to ask why not?

John Passant is a doctoral student at the ANU and a tutor in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong.

New Matilda

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