Legislative Council - April 9th, 2008
On the 9th of April, Mark introduced a Greens Private Members' Bill, the Development (Political Donations) Amendment Bill 2008.
The Hon. M. PARNELL: Unless honourable members have been out of the country or on a different planet, none of us can have failed to notice the situation in New South Wales in relation to local councils, development approvals and political donations. The scandal of the Wollongong council has created ripples right throughout the country.
All of us have been shocked at the stories that we have heard,
whether it is the sexual activities of council planning staff, the
early morning meetings at the 'table of knowledge' outside the kebab
shop or the vast amounts of money that are donated to political parties
by developers, presumably to assist in the furtherance of development
The response to these situations around the country has been mixed. In the state where most of the problems have been identified (New South Wales) the government has moved to take action to clean up the system and to provide more transparency in the area of political donations. One of the things that premier Morris Iemma announced some little while ago was that they would make a link between the declarations required for political donations and the development application process itself.
The thinking behind that is that it adds a level of transparency if people who lodge development applications are also required to disclose the donations that they have made. It is regarded as a far preferable system than waiting for a year or more after the event and then have people raise the issue, in parliament or elsewhere, with a range of questions about the propriety of those activities.
Interestingly, when the Wollongong situation first blew up even the Prime Minister was drawn in to the debate, and he used (on the ABC) the phrase 'democracy for sale'. 'Democracy for Sale', of course, is the title of a website that the Greens have run for many years now where we add value to the Australian Electoral Commission returns by analysing the numbers, categorising them in spreadsheets according to the types of industries and generally making those raw statistics from the AEC more acceptable.
We are talking about perceptions. There is always a danger, when you raise this topic, that one is accused of scaremongering and making accusations of corruption and bribery, even though the call that I have made in this place over the past two years has been to say that there are questions that need to be answered and that it is the perception of influence which is as dangerous as any fact of corruption. We are also told, whenever this topic is raised in South Australia, that we are not the same as New South Wales, and that is for a couple of reasons. The first thing is that they say we do not find as much corruption here. My response to that is -
The Hon. R.I. Lucas: How do we know?
The Hon. M. PARNELL: We do not know because, as the Hon. Rob Lucas says, we are not looking for it. Why aren't we looking for it?
The PRESIDENT: Order! The Hon. Mr Lucas is out of order.
The Hon. R.I. Lucas: Close your eyes and you won't see anything, Mr President.
The PRESIDENT: Order!
The Hon. M. PARNELL: We are not looking for it, and we do not have an independent commission against corruption and, if you do not look for something, your chance of finding it is very low. That is one reason why we are told we are different from other states. The other reason that we are told we are different is that most development approval decisions are made by local council development assessment panels, and two features of those panels in this state are different to other states.
The first thing is that party politics in local government in South Australia is more covert than overt. Most of us know in our local council that certain councillors are Labor Party people, other councillors might be Liberal Party, while others might be independents. They are never badged as such during elections, but most of us tend to know where people fit, and that is a different situation to New South Wales where the party politics in local government is more overt.
The other reason we are told that the New South Wales situation could not happen here is that these development assessment panels comprise not just elected members but, in fact, since we passed legislation a year or two ago, they comprise a majority of non-elected members - experts who are appointed - and, therefore, those experts not being politicians or candidates for public office are not in receipt of donations nor are they looking for donations for their campaigns; therefore, we are not going to get that same level of corruption in this state.
Those arguments hold a very small amount of water but not much. I think the situation here is still as vulnerable to corruption as the situation in New South Wales. One of the reasons for that is that some of the most important decisions around development are not in fact the majority of development applications which are dealt with by these panels, but they are decisions to do with rezoning and major developments. Both of those situations - rezoning decisions and major development decisions - in this state are political decisions, and they are effectively unfettered political decisions. For example, we know that, when a project is called in as a major project, one of the consequences of that decision made by the planning minister, presumably in consultation with cabinet, is that the primacy of the planning scheme (that is, the development plan for the area) is out the window.
A local council is not allowed to make a decision that is seriously at variance with the local development plan. Once it has been declared a major project, the Governor is allowed to make a seriously at variance decision. The Governor is only obliged to have regard to the planning scheme and therein lies the reason why some prominent projects, such as the development of the Le Cornu site, have been declared major projects. The proposed development for the Le Cornu site has been allowed to circumvent the planning rules for that part of North Adelaide, which declare it a three-storey zone, and they are proposing a six-storey building. It was never going to get approval by the Adelaide City Council because it was too high. Rather than change the zoning and go through that proper consultation process, the decision has been made to declare it a major project in which case that three-storey zoning is just one factor to be taken into consideration; it is not conclusive.
I will say at this stage that I have no particular arguments for or against the Le Cornu site development being six storeys. That might be the right location. Plenty of other local residents - and I have referred to that in this place before - say that it is an inappropriate development. That is not the point. The point is that those decisions are political decisions and, unless we have some more transparency in political donations, the question will always be asked whether people were seeking to buy influence in making political donations to the party in office.
My response to all of this is to amend the Development Act, which is the act under which anyone who wants to develop something, build something or change the use of land, must lodge an application. My amendments propose that, for large developments (developments over a prescribed threshold), a development application must be accompanied by a declaration of political donations that the developer or any associated entities have made within the previous two years.
In other words, it is not going as far as saying (as I have in this place before), 'Let's ban political donations from developers.' My bill does not do that. What it says is, 'When you lodge your development application, you also lodge a statutory declaration or some other prescribed form declaring what donations you have made.'
I think it is appropriate to put a threshold in there because, otherwise, every mum and dad wanting to add a rumpus room to their house or build a large chook shed would be required to lodge a declaration. Clearly, that is inappropriate, so I have chosen two thresholds for people to be caught by the provisions of this bill, if it is to be enacted.
The first provision is a monetary one to say that any development application worth more than $4 million should be subject to these political disclosure rules. Why $4 million? It seems that that figure already exists on our statute books; it is the figure that we use for sending public projects to the Public Works Committee; that is the threshold - $4 million. It seemed to me that it might be a sensible threshold for private developments. It is not going to catch any houses unless they are absolute mansions; it is not even going to catch small blocks of flats; it is going to catch big developments.
The other threshold that I have introduced is in relation to subdivisions. A subdivision, of itself, is not necessarily worth a great deal of money because the exercise consists of drawing lines on a map. It is only when the blocks are sold and when development occurs on each allotment that a value comes in, so I have set a threshold in this legislation of 10-lot subdivisions or more.
They are the two situations where I believe our democracy would be improved by having transparency in relation to political donations. If the cost of your development is $4 million or more or if you want to create more than 10 lots on a subdivision, you need to comply with this declaration.
Today, I was reading the latest edition of Crikey.com (which I know many members here subscribe to). There is always an interesting range of views in there. There was one correspondent to that online journal today who refers to these political donations in New South Wales as being more akin to a form of taxation rather than a form of donation. I will read a few sentences from that letter because I think it sums it up very nicely. John Addis is the correspondent and he states:
There are three points that lead to a quasi-Sicilian conclusion. Firstly, property developers are pure-bred, uncompromising, unreconstructed capitalists. Not a cent is spent, unless there is an obligation to do so, without a pay-off. Secondly, the developers and Sartor [being the relevant New South Wales minister] both agree that the donations don't confer any benefit on the companies making them. Thirdly, despite this acknowledgment, developers continue with the practice.
Clearly, it does not add up. The article concludes:
Why does a property developer give money for no apparent return? If it isn't a bribe, and clearly it is not, then it can only be one other thing: a de facto tax on developers levied by the New South Wales Labor Party, to be spent at their discretion. There is simply no other rational explanation.
I am not suggesting that the Labor Party in South Australia is levying a tax in the form that this person suggests New South Wales is, but the confluence of all of these points does lead to this type of a conclusion. If developers are out there to make a dollar, if they do not throw money away on things that do not deliver a return, why on earth are they giving money to political parties?
Many of us heard (and I have referred to it in this place before) the interview that was given on ABC Radio a year or so ago, where the general manager of a large development corporation said in response to questions that yes; they did give money, because it helped them to do business. The person went on to say, 'That's the way business works in this state.' These companies feel that they need to make political donations.
So, my bill does not seek to prevent companies or individuals from making donations. That is an argument to be had on another occasion, on another day.
All I am seeking to do now is to invite this parliament to follow the lead of New South Wales and to accept the principle that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The way in which we get sunlight into the development industry is to require the developers of large projects to disclose at the time they lodge their applications what donations they have made.
If they do not make the disclosure, they do not get their development processed. It is as simple as that. I think that most of the development industry is likely to welcome a move like this, because most people in the development industry are not involved in giving donations to political parties and they see their whole industry being tarnished with the same brush as the New South Wales situation.
With those brief words, I commend the bill to the council, and I urge all honourable members to support the principle that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
For more information see a copy of the Bill