Updated: May 5
The Local Government Amendment (Disqualification from Civic Office) Bill 2020 was introduced into the other place on 25 February 2020 and is in the same form. The second reading speech was given on 27 February 2020 and appears at pages 2,006 to 2,008 in theHansard for that day. Ultimately, the bill seeks to address issues that have transpired over some time throughout certain local councils. From the outset, I want to be very clear on behalf of the Opposition that the overwhelming vast majority of councils and councillors serve their communities with integrity and dignity and do so very well. However, there is an anomaly that we feel needs to be addressed. I note that on the other side there are many who also feel the matter needs to be addressed.
As the shadow Minister for Local Government, I am proud to bring the bill to the House. From the outset, I acknowledge my colleague the Hon. Walt Secord, MLC, for his advocacy on this matter and for his efforts in getting the bill through the upper House as well as for his commitment to ensuring integrity is provided throughout communities and our local councils. Ultimately, the bill seeks to disqualify real estate agents and property developers from holding civic office. That is the office of a councillor or mayor of a council or, in the case of a county council, the office of a chairperson or member. Furthermore, the bill also requires the following: first, councillors who are engaged in property development post council elections resign from their roles as councillors; secondly, councillors who are employed as real estate agents after being elected to council step down from their positions as councillors; thirdly, council candidates sign declaration forms stating whether they have any close associations with property developers; and, finally, council candidates sign declaration forms stating whether they have any close associations with real estate agents. Let me be clear. A close association will be regarded as a relationship where the candidate would receive financial benefit from development or any such transactions. The purpose of the bill is to remove the conflicts of interest faced by real estate agents and developers serving on councils and to ensure the community's best interests are at the forefront of council decision‑making.
In essence, the bill will provide certainty for communities that their elected representatives will be acting in the community's best interest alone. It will also provide candidates and councillors with clarity to ensure that they are not compromised. I will be very clear on that point: The development and real estate industries are two important, good and honourable professions. Many professionals work within those industries. The bill is no reflection on them. This is a matter of addressing a conflict or potential conflict that may arise, and has arisen, in councils across New South Wales—not every council and, yes, it is a vast minority, but the anomaly must be fixed. Communities must be provided with certainty that the sole motivation and focus of their elected representatives in civic office is community‑based requirements; at the same time, candidates and councillors must be provided with clarity.
All members in this place are aware of the importance of integrity in the social democratic process that we enjoy in this State and, indeed, our nation. It must be bound by the delivery of certainty and confidence to our communities. There are challenges around this matter, in particular in the community's perception, which must be noted and acknowledged. As I said, everything must be in place to ensure that the community has confidence and certainty. Labor has had a longstanding and principled opposition to developers being on council. That is part of Labor's party platform and is a measure for which it has been advocating for some time. In fact, a similar policy was adopted in 2017. However, with no thanks to the Liberals and Nationals, it was defeated at that time by their joint efforts.
Members opposite like to talk about standing up to corruption and undesirable behaviour, but time and again we have not seen any action to back up that position. As the shadow Minister for Local Government, too often I have heard about those concerns and the potential for a significant level of corruption in local government by the very nature of the tasks that local councils are required to be perform. The fact is council representatives have access to planning information that the general public does not have access to. Should a developer get their hands on that information, all sorts of issues arise in terms of conflicts and potential problems. Again, providing that certainty for community is important.
As I said at the outset, this bill is not a reflection on the many good, honourable and dignified local representatives who serve on their local councils with respect and with the priority of delivering the outcomes that their communities need, deserve and desire. The Independent Commission Against Corruption has long highlighted the unique level of corruption potential due to the high level of decisions made and limited oversight compared with State and Federal decisions. The New South Wales Liberals and Nationals need to stop being concerned about their internal differences on this matter and just get it done. I draw attention to some of those members opposite who have expressed their serious concerns. I note the matter has been brought up at Liberal Party conference as well, where colleagues on the other side of the House rightfully spoke up on this matter and made the same, or very similar, representations as I am making today.
Accordingly, I urge those opposite to take up this opportunity and once and for all put an end to development‑based corruption in local government. The measures in the bill are common sense. They are not only long overdue but are also in line with contemporary community expectations and will have a profound effect on improving faith, accountability and transparency in our communities. As I mentioned previously, I am not the only one saying this; I note the commentary on this issue by the member for Hornsby, Matt Kean. I think he said that it is like letting Dracula into the blood bank. Minister Kean is right. Again, it comes down to a very simple change to safeguard candidates and councillors whilst also providing the community with clarity. But Minister Kean is not the only one. That ever‑diligent journalist Jake McCallum wrote an article published on 3 December 2021 inThe Daily Telegraph, which states:
A senior Liberal MP warned the NSW Liberal Party over 'probity concerns' regarding its mayor candidate for a Sydney council as family links to property were revealed.
The article continues:
NSW Liberal Party president Phillip Ruddock was warned about concerns over a Liberal councillors lack of declarations of property interest affecting major planning proposals before he signed off on controversial nominations for local government elections.
That article inThe Daily Telegraph further reports:
It is understood the [member for] Baulkham Hills—
… David Elliott raised "probity concerns" with Mr Ruddock as earlier as October 22—
before the finalisation of nominations …
Mr Elliott had previously toldNews Local he "repeatedly warned" Liberal Party President Phillip Ruddock over concern regarding the replacement of [an] outgoing mayor … before the referral was made to ICAC.
The article goes on to quote Mr Elliott:
"I repeatedly warned the state president of issues with new candidates being endorsed."
We have seen other matters of concern raised about Strathfield Council, which were also acknowledged by the Office of Local Government as being of very serious concern and requiring further information. We on this side of the House pressed and pushed, but we have seen little to no action from the Government as these matters continue to arise. This bill is an opportunity for the Government to set things right. I truly believe that many members on the other side of the House agree with the changes this bill will make to provide certainty for their communities, and clarity for councillors and candidates. But I also understand that they will probably be required to toe their party line, which ultimately is part of what we all do in this place. I acknowledge that, but I also acknowledge that there are varying views on this matter.
Our view on this side of the House is that we must ensure that we provide the community with certainty. We want to make sure that clarity is given to the candidates and councillors. This State has 128 local councillors who work hard under very challenging circumstances and put their communities' interests first. I commend each and every one of those councils and councillors, who work continuously and very hard. But the reality is that over the past few years a couple of matters have arisen where there has been a conflict.