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Greens want donation reform after a look at minister’s diary

Image: Greater Sydney Community
Image: Greater Sydney Community

NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts met with 53 property developers or property interest groups between January and September this year, but not a single ordinary resident, new information released by the Greens shows.

Together with large donations being made to political parties by developers, the Greens say it shows the system needs to change, and developer bans tightened.

In the last financial year, the Liberal Party, National Party and Labor in NSW received $2.5 million in donations from the property industry.

“Corporations don’t make donations because they love democracy,” Greens planning spokesman David Shoebridge said. “They hand cash to politicians because that helps them make bigger profits.”

Anthony Roberts

The Greens have released data on donations made to both the federal Liberal party and its state counterparts by developers or lobby groups since 2010, as well as the number of times they’ve met with the planning minister.

Since 2010, the data shows Walker Group has donated $475,000 to the federal and NSW Liberal parties, and this year met with the planning minister three times.

Meriton (Apartments and Property Services) has donated $226,000 since 2010, and met with the minister four times this year.

The Property Council of Australia has donated $65,290 since 2010 and met Mr Roberts once this year (though the PCA decided to ban all donations to governments at all levels from October 2016), while Toga Group donated $93,000 to the federal branch, and also met the minister once.

“Property developers are exploiting loopholes in the law to exert political influence,” Mr Shoebridge said.

He told The Fifth Estate a loophole involved donations going to the NSW branch of the federally registered party. The donations are unable to be spent on funding state elections, but Mr Shoebridge said they worked to “free up other donations to be spent on state elections”.

The developer ban is also limited to businesses that regularly put in development applications.

“You can be a large-scale builder or commercial contractor, and if your business doesn’t put in the DA, you’re not affected,” Mr Shoebridge said.

It’s business as usual

Mr Shoebridge told The Fifth Estate it was not unusual for NSW planning ministers’ meeting books to be skewed towards developers and other property industry stakeholders.

“It’s business as usual for planning ministers in NSW, and has been going on for well over a decade,” he said.

The skew may go some way to explain strange decisions like the recent watering down of building products legislation.

“That kind of decision that just pops out of nowhere – and on the face of it is contrary to the public interest – can only happen if ministers aren’t meeting with ordinary people.

“The other recent decision that shows how out of touch they are is knocking down and rebuilding two stadiums. You can be certain there are large development interests in that.”

Time to meet the hoi polloi?

Mr Shoebridge said it was time for the planning minister to have a more balanced meeting schedule and meet with local residents affected by planning decisions.

“We’ve been unable to find any evidence that he’s met with an ordinary resident.”

However, he said this wasn’t seen as controversial by others in the political establishment.

“People say, ‘He doesn’t have time to meet with ordinary people.’ They really don’t see a problem with it. People are looking to government to help them. The fact that it is considered so chillingly normal by the political establishment shows the extent of the problem.”

Call to expand the ban

The Greens are also calling for nationally consistent laws around donations.

“The obvious first step is to extend the state ban federally,” Mr Shoebridge said. “That would straight away prohibit donations from the likes of Meriton, Toga and Walker Corporation.

“The second step is to put in place a much more robust definition of what constitutes a property developer. Any profit-driven company whose principal interest is property development should be covered.”

Mr Shoebridge said there was a “strong argument” to include sectors that are prone to corruption, such as gambling, alcohol, tobacco, and the mining and resources sector.

“Australians are sick of the stranglehold donations have on politics,” he said.

“That is why they are rejecting the major parties in record numbers at election after election.”

The Queensland government recently announced it would ban developer donations, though the Property Council said all sectors needed to be treated equally.

“It is the view of the Property Council that if the threshold test for banning donations is whether or not there could be a perceived link between a political donation and the decision making of government, this perception would exist in relation to political donations made by other business sectors, community groups, environmental groups and unions at both local and state government levels,” PCA Queensland executive director Chris Mountford said.

PCA chief executive Ken Morrison said the peak body’s decision to stop donating to political parties was because donations had had “no impact on the success of our advocacy work, which is sustained on the merits of our research and policy activities”.

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