Moore / Democracy undermined as political trust fails

“The auditor-general identified that an associated entity, a major donor to the Labor Party, wound up with a windfall gain of more than $2.5 million,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE

INTEGRITY and corruption were issues for almost all parties and candidates at the last election. An Assembly committee chaired by Greens Minister Shane Rattenbury, reported in November with nearly 80 recommendations for an anti-corruption and integrity commission. Agreement has been reached. It is time for action.

Michael Moore.

“If I were in NSW and this came before me I would have sent if off to the Independent Commission Against Corruption,” said former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris, who had more to say to Dan Bourchier on ABC Breakfast: “It would have been an obligation under the Act, any suspicion of wrongdoing or corruption would have to be referred to the ICAC”.

The issue being discussed was the land deal between the Labor government and the “Tradies” in Dickson. The Labor government paid $3.9 million for the club and rented it back for the nominal charge of $1 a year. This is the same club that houses the headquarters of the CFMEU, which works closely with the Tradies and donated $38,000 to the Labor Party before the last election.

ACT auditor-general Dr Maxine Cooper opened her scathing report on the land deal pointing out the government “did not achieve the sale objective of pursuing an open, contestable and transparent market process and there are indications it did not achieve value for money from the sale”. Open and transparent are two of the hallmarks of integrity in government.

It gets worse. Dr Cooper suggests that the ACT government, through the Economic Development Directorate, was at high risk of selling the land to the Tradies in breach of the Planning and Development Act 2007. The auditor-general has put this down to “weaknesses in how it managed the tender process”. Those weaknesses meant a windfall gain on one of the blocks “estimated to be in the range of up to $1.57 million to $1.82 million” and on another for an “estimated $830,000”.

The auditor-general identified that an associated entity, a major donor to the Labor Party, wound up with a windfall gain of more than $2.5 million. This gain was made on a deal that lacks appropriate documentation, lacks openness and lacks transparency. Surely such a revelation requires deeper investigation by a body with appropriate investigative as well as coercive powers.

It is not clear that there was any political interference. Perhaps it was just incompetence. There were considerable changes made compared to the original request for tender (RFT). Although very critical of the process, the auditor-general did note that there was “no evidence that the Economic Development Directorate sought the government’s approval prior to dispensing with these RFT requirements”.

With the benefit of coercive powers, as proposed for the ACT Anti-Corruption and Integrity Commission, the suspicion of political influence could be examined properly. Opposition Leader Alistair Coe described the “scandalous land deals between the ACT Labor-Greens government and the Tradies are far worse than we thought”. He personalised the accusations by adding the “report is a grave indictment on the Chief Minister”. His attempt is to create a “where-there-is-smoke-there-is-fire” scenario. The trouble is we simply do not know.

In the same week as the auditor-general’s scathing report, the ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice, Helen Murrell, found anomalies in the use of delay by the ACT Planning and Land Authority as a failure to perform its statutory duties. However, considering recent changes in legislation, she saw it as “futile” to overturn the decision in favour of the Canberra Greyhound and Racing Club who accused the government of failure to “follow proper legal processes”.

Our democracy is being undermined as trust in politicians and political institutions drops to an all-time low. Distrust and suspicion might be useful tools for an opposition. However, unless there is some way to test the veracity of such propositions, the whole process is undermined.

The last word regarding such issues in the ACT belongs to Tony Harris: “The trouble in the ACT is we don’t have an ICAC at the moment.”

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