Local Government and Elections Legislation Amendment (Integrity) Bill 2016

24th June 2016

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 19:05 :01 ): I too wish to contribute to debate on the Local Government and Elections Legislation Amendment (Integrity) Bill 2016. This is a vexed area and has been a problem in New South Wales since the foundation of the State and probably back to the Rum Corps days. While I listened to the debate and the comments made by the Opposition about the integrity of the Government's process, I reflected back on the many issues that plagued New South Wales under the Labor Party when it was for many years in government. I think the Opposition would agree that many of the names raised at the time were a great embarrassment to the State and to the Labor Party. I do not cast those aspersions on the current members. I think we are all equally interested in getting these matters resolved and we are doing it incrementally.

I acknowledge that the Minister is here in the House and has done a good job of sitting through a lot of debate in this place tonight. Certainly I do not think the Government can claim that this bill will be the be?all and end?all of what is needed to give the people of New South Wales confidence in our system into the future. Indeed, it has been my view for a long time that we have needed a system of caps on donations and complementary caps on election expenditure. They go hand in glove. The Government is saying that the advice is that the legislation cannot be implemented for the upcoming local government elections in 2016. I think that is a shame, but if that is the advice then that is the advice. However why has it taken so long to get to this point?

Members have referred to the 2010 inquiry into election donations. I appeared before that committee inquiry and made a submission to it. I made the point then that it is possible to create new rules, but it is impossible to legislate for the integrity to follow the spirit of those new rules. What we are trying to do here is to create integrity within the system, rather than relying on integrity in the person. I am sure that as we speak on this bill tonight there will be people thinking of ways around it. It seems to be the nature of the way some people approach politics that they look to gain from the system.

I listened intently to the member for Wyong talk about the examples that he has seen in his electorate over the years and I have been close enough to have seen many of those myself. The member for Port Stephens is also here. Port Stephens is another area in which I have taken an interest over the years, as I am sure have others. There seems to be a level of gamesmanship there. It is the sort of politics that lowers the tone and brings politicians into disrepute in the view of members of the public. I think that is a great shame because members understand that most people who enter public service in local government are doing it for the right reasons. However, too many are not of that ilk and get into local government to gain from the system and they bring it into disrepute. They are the people who run the rotten boroughs around the State. This bill goes some way towards addressing that problem.

I think the cap system on donations is reasonable. I have always felt it could be lower, but it is not up to me to say what is reasonable, as long as there is consistency and the cap is not set at a ridiculous level. We need a cap on expenditure because that is where the arms race really hits the tarmac, so to speak. That is where we see the big money being expended in local government. Local government should be about grassroots campaigns. If we cannot have grassroots campaigns and sensible limits in local government, heaven help us. We have achieved that to some degree within the State government and it is reasonable that we should also achieve that in local government across New South Wales. It is disappointing that the bill does not achieve all that we have set out to do, but it is a path that we are on and I am sure that the Government is well aware that the people of New South Wales expect that these issues will be addressed.

There is a recent history across the State, in local government and in State Government, of politicians being found to be compromised by bending the rules and by taking liberties with the intentions of the system. They have consequently lost their seats or been forced to resign. Such behaviour has a detrimental impact on local and State government, and on politics in general. This bill is a step, but I say to the Minister that it does not go far enough. I expect that the Minister understands that there is a need to go further. I will be interested in the way in which the Opposition couches its amendments in the upper House. Not that I expect that the amendments will come back to this place and pass this House or be embraced by the Government, but it might inform the debate as we go further into this issue.

I congratulate the Minister on addressing some of the issues of integrity relating to the excesses of the now notorious former councillor Salim Mehajer and others who sought to use the powers that they gained in local government for personal gain. The manner in which they used their position to influence strategic planning, the development of local environmental plans [LEPs], development control plans [DCPs] and development consents to the benefit of themselves or their friends or family members was a disgrace. This bill squarely takes that on and is an important part of introducing improved procedures into local government. I support the bill and I thank the Government for proceeding with it, even though it is at too short notice.

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