NEWCASTLE is the largest NSW city outside of Sydney and, with about 300,000 residents, is not far off the size of Canberra.Opponents of self-government cite Newcastle as a model for a local council system for the ACT. However, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has found Newcastle to be a cesspit of political corruption.
Will the ICAC provide lessons for ACT politicians?
When the former Newcastle Lord Mayor, Jeff McCloy, handed out largess to Liberal candidates in their election campaign he hardly expected to be so caught up in a tide of deceit and fraudulent behaviour that would bring down a range of MPs from the NSW Parliament, including two members who were elected in seats within the Newcastle area. Tim Owen and Andrew Cornwell have both quit the NSW Parliament after it was revealed the Lord Mayor gave them $10,000 each. The Lord Mayor has now quit also.
McCloy went on to tell the ICAC: “They all come to see me for money, I feel like a walking ATM, some days.”
He might have been the Lord Mayor, but McCloy is also a multi-millionaire developer. It is interesting that as 89 per cent of voters in a “Newcastle Herald” poll of 3484 votes called for the Lord Mayor to step down immediately, his millionaire developer colleague, the nearby Port Stephens mayor, is reported to have told him to “man up” and “don’t resign”.
There were attempts in the last days of the former NSW government to clean up the corruption including a ban on donations from developers. Then Premier Barry O’Farrell went further.
O’Farrell’s donation reforms fundamentally banned anyone not on the electoral role from donating, including corporations and unions. However, these amendments to legislation were overturned by the High Court in December.
Newcastle and its surrounding towns are the losers. The reputation of corruption taints communities, which is why it’s important to ensure that it is clear and transparent about who is making what donations and to whom. It is too easy for donors to get around our systems in NSW, federally and in the ACT.
In the ACT, the most obvious example is the millions Labor has received through donations from clubs – money that has come from poker machines – and yet there has never been a case where an MLA has stood aside from voting on legislation where there is an obvious conflict of interest.
Reports earlier this year suggest that the four Labor Clubs, which serve alcohol, run poker machines and TAB gambling, raised $65 million last year.
The Liberals have the Free Enterprise Foundation. The ICAC was told that developer Nathan Tinkler donated $66,000 to the Foundation. The suggestion was made that it may have been linked to “a systematic subversion of NSW electoral funding laws”. By moving donations across jurisdictions it becomes easier to work around differing anti-corruption laws.
I have not observed embedded corruption in ACT politics. The people I have worked with have been elected to deliver a better society and have worked extraordinarily hard to do so. There are different views of what makes a better society – but when large sums of money are needed in order to get elected, people invariably become, at least to a certain extent, reliant on those who have made a donation.
The ACT Assembly report “Voting Matters”, which was tabled in June, recommends a restriction on the amount that can be spent in an election campaign – that is: “The electoral expenditure cap be calculated on the basis of $40,000 per candidate to a maximum of five candidates per five-member electorate, indexed annually”.
The committee also recommended donations be restricted to $10,000. By attempting to restrict expenditure and donations, the Select Committee was taking a step to avoid the sort of corruption that has become evident through the ICAC.