Image for Who’s knocking on Tasmania’s aldermanic doors?

With the local government election results now finalised, Tasmania’s 263 councillors are confronting the dilemma on how to handle requests from developers seeking to press the case for their pet projects in behind-the-scenes meetings.

While local government decision making is an area well-known to be fraught with the risk of corruption, no official guidance is provided to Tasmanian councillors on how to handle these potentially compromising requests. 

The Tasmanian Integrity Commission (TIC) told Tasmanian Times (TT) that last financial year they received 15 complaints involving 115 specific allegations involving local government. This represented a little over one-sixth of all the complaints and allegations made.

A 2001 report by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – Corruption Resistance Strategies – Researching risks in local government  – noted that one-quarter of general managers surveyed “saw bribery as a major corruption risk in the area of development” and that one in nine council staff “said they were aware of instances of bribery, particularly during the development approval process.”

One of the factors increasing the risk of corruption in local government, the report noted, was that councils “have a lot of discretionary powers within their decision-making processes.”

While, based on a review of the Tasmanian Integrity Commission website, no guidance is provided to Tasmania’s elected councillors on how to handle requests from developers for private meetings, the NSW ICAC does.

NSW ICAC warns against dancing with developers

In its “Lobbying local government councillors” – which dates back to 2006 – ICAC states:

”Councillors should take care that their duty to consider issues fairly and properly is not compromised by participating in lobbying practices that are outside the bounds of appropriate or lawful behaviour… Generally, however, inappropriate or unlawful conduct on the part of someone lobbying a councillor usually involves an attempt to obtain preferential consideration or treatment based on factors other than the merits of a matter.”

The NSW ICAC warns councillors against “accepting undisclosed payments or benefits whilst making a decision that affects the gift-giver’s interests.”

ICAC also cautions against councillors:

“accepting a political donation in return for the favourable exercise of discretion during decision-making. Ideally, councillors should keep the lobbying and fundraising activities in which they are involved quite separate to avoid even the perception that a political donation could influence their decision-making”

However, Tasmania has Australia’s weakest standards with no legal requirement for candidates to disclose details of any donors who supported their campaigns.

Ahead of the latest Tasmanian council elections, Financial & Disclosure (F&D) set up a website for real-time voluntary disclosure of donations. They emailed candidates for Tasmania’s councils requesting they provide details of donations ahead of the election so that voters could make an informed decision. Forty-four candidates did, the rest didn’t.

Even so, F & D found the response encouraging. With a modest 1400 visits to the website during the October election period despite next to no promotional budget the group believes it indicates “that there is both a desire for transparency, and that any move toward it has an infectious effect.”

“This kind of ‘real time’ disclosure should be required and made easy by an official authority.  It would be easy to establish and inexpensive to administer. Tasmania would be seen to be leading the world in transparency and accountability,” F & D wrote in their submission to a government review of legislation governing local government.

Welcome to my lair, said the lobbyist to the fly

While the composition of the recently-elected councils and the positions of Mayor and Deputy Mayor have been resolved, jockeying for other positions – such as the role as chair and membership of committees – have yet to be resolved at the initial council meetings.

With TT  being informed that some developers are already requesting one-on-one meetings with councillors to discuss development applications, some councillors are left wondering what ethical standards apply.

While the TIC provides no guides to councillors, the NSW ICAC urges caution. In their 2006 guide they state that:

councillors should exercise judgement when deciding whether to be involved in private meetings with people seeking to influence a council decision. Suspicions of inappropriate lobbying can occur when lobbying is not open to public scrutiny. Regardless of whether such suspicions are justified, they still have the potential to undermine public confidence in council decision-making and adversely affect a councillor’s reputation.

Transparency is a useful means of governing accountability and perceptions of fairness in lobbying processes.

There are a number of ways councillors can help ensure transparency while being lobbied. These include:

documenting meetings with proponents generally conducting meetings in official locations such as council premises

having other people present during meetings

inviting applicants who have approached them for a meeting to discuss a significant development to write to council seeking a meeting with all councillors and relevant staff

providing copies of information presented during lobbying meetings to council officers for consideration and assessment (if required), distribution to other councillors and filing as part of council’s records

asking people who have requested a meeting to put their arguments in writing

making a declaration at a council meeting about lobbying activities they have been engaged in that are not part of council’s formal processes.

Councillors can consider these options in situations where it would be beneficial to have some form of record about what transpired between themselves and a proponent.”

While the TIC provides no specific guidance for councillors on protocols for meetings with developers, it is aware that local councils are a major corruption risk area.

The Report on Ethics & Integrity in the Tasmanian Public Sector, which was published in 2013, notes:

There was a widespread degree of concern about conflicts of interest, particularly in the health sector and local councils (recruitment was identified as a key area). Nepotism and patronage were perceived as a problem in these sectors.

In its latest annual report the TIC’s report notes that a major priority area over the past year has been visiting 19 councils to assess their needs and provide “advice and support in ethics training and misconduct prevention.” The TIC flagged that it planned to visit the remaining 10 councils during the second half of 2014.

It also stated that it would “run ethics and integrity training for newly-elected members” following the October council elections.

However, with newly-elected councils getting down to business and developers already seeking one-on-one meetings, the stable door is already wide open.

• Ben Lohberger, in Comments: Some cases of apparent corruption in local government are far more obvious than others, the North Melbourne Football Club sponsorship deal being one such example. I still can’t believe that Hobart City Council aldermen thought it was okay to receive $25,000 worth of *personal* benefits from the NMFC, after granting that same NMFC $250,000pa of *ratepayers* money, and while they were considering an extension of that sponsorship to $300,000pa. Most people could accept that aldermen receiving a ticket to the NMFC games might be okay - after all, they do need to assess the event somehow, and attending personally is a not a bad way to do so. But the flood of benefits from NMFC to aldermen has far exceeded what could reasonably be expected and, to rub salt into the wound, the HCC’s gifts register openly states that the benefits given to aldermen were “provided by the NMFC as part of the City of Hobart’s funding agreement”. So the contract that gifted NMFC $250,000pa also stipulated that NMFC provide personal benefits back to the aldermen who approved the contract. The whole thing stinks to high heaven, and I’ll be very interested to see how the Integrity Commission deals with this issue.