When Wollongong City Council was sacked late yesterday, it gained the dubious honour of being the eighth council to be dismissed in NSW within the past five years. This is an embarrassing record for the tier of government that is supposed to be the closest to its constituents. The federal government in far-away Canberra has been sacked only once.
The Wollongong council scandal has everything: sex, bribery and an impersonation of a corruption watchdog officer. But, most of all, Wollongong council has inadvertently highlighted the deep problems with local government administration across the country. Compared with other levels of government, there is little accountability and scrutiny of local government. It is no wonder it often makes expensive mistakes and is susceptible to corruption.
Part of the fault lies in the sorts of people who are drawn to council office. Local government politics tends to attract those excited by the machinations and manipulations of political life but disinterested in public policy.
There is one good thing to be said for politicians motivated by ideological fervour: at least they want the best for their constituents.
Too many people stand for local government with little interest in responsible governing.
As Wollongong has been virtually a one-party city for the better part of a century, it is little more than a sandpit for Labor’s factional warfare.
A main cause of the corruption in local government is the often cited problem of lack of transparency and accountability. Few media organisations are interested in the day to day goings-on of individual councils, at least until a corruption watchdog puts a councillor in front of a judge.
Free from the close scrutiny that federal and state governments are subject to, councils are free to follow their whims. It is perhaps indicative that some of the earliest casualties of the sub-prime crisis have been local government investment portfolios.
If the market had not so spectacularly imploded during the past few months, NSW’s Wingecarribee Shire Council would never have been asked why it was investing in mortgages in Houston and Orlando.
One possible remedy for this sense that corruption is endemic in councils has been raised by the Queensland Local Government Association: politicians would be less likely to accept bribes and gifts from property developers if there were more extensive scrutiny of political donations.
This echoes Kevin Rudd’s declaration yesterday that the federal Government plans to drastically limit campaign donations in the name of good government.
Limiting political donations creates its own problems, not least that doing so tends to favour incumbent politicians who are able to harness the full resources of their government.
But, more crucially, limiting political donations to local councillors does not tackle the real problem. Local governments have too much power over questions of property development.
After all, this is virtually the only reason that bribery occurs between councillors and property developers. Most of the time, local governments are doing little more than imposing petty, nanny state, regulations: putting up noise restrictions for street parties; forcing us to use smaller rubbish bins; ensuring that nobody paints their front door red; and other similar important things. But when they deal with the issue of property development, these councillors suddenly hold vast levels of discretionary power, able to approve or reject multimillion-dollar investments with a stroke of a pen.
Furthermore, the approach that many councils take towards property development is also a leading cause of Australia’s housing crisis. Local government tends to resist urban infill, putting extra pressure on our already critical land shortage. It doesn’t take long for councillors to realise that being caught between NIMBY activists and property developers is potentially a lucrative position.
When councillors and their staff have the power to determine town planning restrictions according to their subjective judgment, and the discretionary power to impose heritage restrictions on properties barely a decade old, it is no wonder that developers feel the need to flatter those councillors with friendship, gifts, and brown envelopes full of money.
Corruption exists where there are opportunities for the manipulation of political power for personal gain. So local governments provide the corrupt-minded with ample opportunities. If we are to solve the corruption problem, we should remove the discretionary power and regulations that make that corruption so profitable.