Mike Baird Fiddles While We Lumber Towards More Corrupt Council Elections

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Legislation to tackle corruption in NSW at the local government level will come too late to protect voters, writes Justin Field.

For those NSW councils not embroiled in Mike Baird’s amalgamation quagmire, local government elections to be held this September will once again be the plaything of developers and vested interests.

For all the rhetoric, ICAC hearings and special inquiries, the Baird Government has failed to address key corruption risks and our democracy remains for sale.

You would think with admissions of brown paper bags in the back of a Bentley, the washing of illegal donations through federal Liberal Party fundraising vehicles and the outrageous situation on Auburn council, that laws to ensure developers can’t buy their way onto councils would have been a no brainer.

But legislation rushed through NSW parliament with little debate in the last sitting week before the long winter break are half measures at best. The Local Government and Elections Legislation Amendment (Integrity) Bill 2016 ignored the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to political donations reform. We can be sure that those with cash to burn and influence to peddle will once again take advantage of the flawed system.

At the September council elections there will still be no limit on how much a candidate or party can spend trying to get elected. This is the level of government where even small amounts of money can have a big impact on an election, swinging the balance of a council on critical issues like a rezoning or major development.

There are expenditure limits for NSW State Elections (currently $122,900 in a single seat) and the Baird Government is publicly pushing for NSW laws to form the basis of commonwealth reforms. It makes no sense to have spending caps at the state level and be pursuing spending caps at the federal level, but not have them at the local government level.

NSW Premier Mike Baird. (IMAGE: Beau Giles, Flickr)
NSW Premier Mike Baird. (IMAGE: Beau Giles, Flickr)

Spending caps level the playing field in an election. It means wealthy individuals like Clive Palmer or former Newcastle Lord Mayor Jeff McCloy, who was said to have spent $144,000 on his last council election campaign, can’t buy their way into important decision-making roles.

In addition to limiting self-funder and self-interested candidates, spending caps reduce the incentive to try to procure or hide illegal donations because it is harder to use those donations without creating a public trail by way of advertising or other campaign expenses.

The Government has said caps couldn’t be introduced in time for the September poll, but will be in place by the second round of elections next year. But this has been an issue for many years and this latest decision is just the next round of obfuscation on this important issue for our democracy.

The other critical failure of the ‘reforms’ is that retaining current disclosure rules will still mean the voting public won’t know who donated what to who until at the earliest September 2018.

The antiquated disclosure regime undermines the transparency of the entire system.

The new laws do seek to respond to genuine problems with councillors’ making decisions where they have a financial interest in the outcome. But we have seen vested interests get around these types of rules in the past and often the investigation or prosecution comes after the tainted decision is implemented.

The Baird Government’s credentials on democracy are already weak. The forced council amalgamation plans and sacking of democratically elected councillors comes on the back of draconian anti-protest laws. Mike Baird had some standing on this issue with his initial response to the ICAC findings, and the series of Liberal MPs caught up in the scandals. But the community is right to question whose interests are being looked after here, and why there’s a delay on cleaning up democracy.

Past experience shows us who will benefit when money determines local council elections.

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Justin Field

Justin Field is a Greens member of the NSW Legislative Assembly.

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