Sex, lies and development – depaNews February 2008

Lunch with minister only $5100 – February 2008

Sex, lies and development

There have been better times to work in planning and development control in local government. No one doing so can be immune from the community's perception of relationships between local government at Wollongong and developers revealed, on a daily and increasingly astonishing basis, in the ICAC.

The taint spreads well beyond Wollongong and while it's inappropriate to say too much before the Commission hands down its findings, one confessed bad apple can have devastating effects on the barrel. The message is beware. We can understand why those innocently caught up in the exercise come to the realisation that the safest thing to do is assume everyone is a crook.

In the past 10 years the ICAC has claimed some local government scalps. In the 90s they said that the potential for corruption in development control was so open and available that it was surprising how few Council employees actually took advantage of it. It was a testament to the integrity of council staff. Many, many more councillors had been exposed than employees.

It may have been a surprise to the ICAC but this doesn't surprise us. Many years ago (probably 1985 or 1986) Nick Greiner, at that time Leader of the New South Wales Opposition spoke at the annual conference dinner of the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors. He said there were three great lies in life: my cheque is in the mail, I’ll love you in the morning and I'm from the Council and I'm here to help.

Nick was short on sensitivity and didn't get the idea that people who choose to work in local government really do think they're here to help. We understand that because we see countless daily examples of competent, caring and ethical professionals working across New South Wales protecting the health, environmental and development interests of their local communities. And so do you.

But it's timely to provide a reminder of the view we regularly publish than when it comes to the discretionary area of pecuniary interest declarations, we think it makes sense to declare everything. Coffees, lunches, whatever. It doesn't really matter what the Council wants you to declare (because Codes of Conduct are dynamic documents that sometimes lag behind community and public perceptions) and it doesn't really matter if people think you are being a bit extreme declaring a sandwich, it's all about risk management.

But the immediate observation has to be the double-standards. While the reformers and critics of local government want it to be more like the private sector, the ICAC wants standards of propriety that would bring the private sector (and private certifiers’ businesses) to a grinding halt.

It's not just local government exposed at Wollongong. Political relationships between one ex-staff member at Wollongong and the ALP and the NSW Government ensured that questions are being asked about many others as well. Coinciding with the murkiness at Wollongong are the revelations about contributions by developers to political parties and who pays what to have dinner with whom.

The ALP is the principal recipient and our memory extends back far enough to recall that at the time developers got the right to buy their own private certifiers from Craig Knowles, developers were the largest contributions to the NSW Branch of the ALP. Funny about that.

$5,100 seems a lot to pay to have lunch with Planning Minister Frank Sartor. We know it was a fundraiser and all that, and a fairly common way of political parties doing business, and we also know that Frank is great company, a raconteur and storyteller but, depa has found that the Minister also responds favourably to a carefully worded letter.

While there were a few members who thought our January letter was a bit sub-professional there were even more members who thought that our language was far too temperate and polite. Suffice to say, it's hard to get Ministers of the Crown to pay attention to anything you want to say these days and our letter clearly worked.

A full and frank (if you'll pardon the expression) disclosure of views took place and the time with the Minister at least allowed him to understand our irritation at his unfounded allegations about Council staff, our concerns about the expansion of private certification and our worry that the concept of consultation with the community was really a hoax. Frank really didn't care about the letter, won't apologise - although understood why we were distressed, and invited us to participate in this Working Party. Total cost to depa, one $10 taxi. Okay, it's now out in the open.

The letter is temporarily removed from the website as a sign of good faith. Before it was removed, however, it created a record for the site. Many, many more hits than we have members and, as far as the Local Government and Shires Association is concerned, probably the best thing we have ever done.

But there is no shaking the Minister's conviction and we should prepare ourselves for the worst.


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