Clamp On Conflict Of Interest May Hobble Sound Judgement

Do we want our councillors to be even less interested in local government policy than they already are?

As potential councillors submit their nominations for Victoria’s council elections next month, this is the message the State Government is broadcasting. A legislative change to local government administrative law now filtering through Parliament will exclude councillors from being able to vote on an issue in which they have an indirect interest.

Across the nation, councils have been embroiled in scandal after scandal over alleged corruption concerning development approvals. It would be nice to clean up council politics. But this new indirect interest rule is remarkably broadly defined. Apart from the obvious possible conflicts of interest – family members owning property that might be enriched by council decisions, and so on – it also considers an improper interest to exist if the council member had, at any time in the past, made a submission on the issue at hand.

But what if the councillor was elected specifically because of his or her position on that issue? Those activists who have in the past taken legal action against, say, the St Kilda Triangle or the 2am lockout would be unable to vote against them in council when the time came.

The only councillors who would be able to vote would be those who have no particular concern for the issue. Imagine this rule extended to state or federal government – democratic representatives could only vote if they didn’t care about what they are voting for.

It would be wrong to have a politician determining fiscal policy if they have a mortgage, or health policy if they have a relative in hospital.

The Government claims this new rule will apply in a small number of cases, but the legislation is worded so ambiguously that many councillors will have to excuse themselves to avoid an inevitable legal backlash.

Other ways the Government believes that councillors might have an indirect interest are just as dubious. One test is whether the councillor ever received a gift worth more than $200 from one of the parties appearing before the council. A sum of $200 is ridiculously small considering most contentious council development applications involve projects worth many millions of dollars.

Does Spring Street really think that bribing local councillors is that easy? If so, we have a much more serious problem than the State Government is making out.

When such trivial donations come to be considered a conflict of interest by the new law, councillors will find it hard to identify prominent members of the community who they don’t have an indirect interest in. Remember, councillors are politicians who have, over many years, needed to fund-raise from within their community.

While we all enjoy feigning moral outrage over the influence of money in politics, as long as councillors are able to make decisions that can make or break property developments worth millions of dollars, money is going to flow into councillors’ campaign chests, whether overtly or covertly.

The problem the State Government is trying to tackle is actually quite real. Councillors are asked to do two separate jobs that can easily come into conflict with each other. Half the time, they are supposed to be politicians, pressing palms, kissing babies and pronouncing judgement on the issues of the day.

The rest of the time, their role in Victoria’s planning framework requires them to be dispassionate judges, prostrating their personal opinions upon the cold concrete slab of administrative law.

This tension between councillors’ democratic and quasi-judicial functions is one they are not well-equipped to manage.

Local government seems to attract the dregs of our political class. There are young factional hacks from political parties who view local government as well-paid work experience. There are activists who don’t know much about government but know they hate ugly new houses spoiling their suburbs’ “traditional character”. And there are earnest greenies who campaign to declare their council “nuclear-free”.

Yes, local councillors are a bizarre collection of the uninformed, the uninterested and the weirdly over-interested.

But they were democratically elected. The State Government should allow them to vote on the issues that got them there.