IT was August 2015, at the height of the controversy over the former deputy mayor of Auburn, Salim Mehajer, that NSW opposition leader Luke Foley floated the idea of banning real estate agents and property developers from local councils.
With Mr Mehajer then a virtual caricature of all that can go wrong with local government, Labor presumably thought it was on to a winner in pushing for the ban. Here in the Hunter, the ICAC controversy surrounding Jeff McCloy – who’d resigned as lord mayor the previous August – was still fresh in the public mind.
Stripped of its emotional appeal, however, the Labor policy makes no more sense than would a corresponding Coalition call for trade unionists to be barred from standing for office. But with local council elections rolling around again in September, Labor has revived its call, with the party’s local government spokesperson, Peter Primrose, joining Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp and Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes in Civic Park on Monday to promote the plan.
Common sense says that even with Greens support, Labor has next to no chance of winning the day on this one. It would take a well-read lawyer to say whether such a move was inherently unconstitutional, but even if it was not, it offends against long-held Australian traditions of democracy. The opposition’s main aim, then, is likely to be to muddy the waters about Coalition local government candidates, who are more likely to come from the business world, in the same way as Labor’s candidates will tend to come with union backgrounds.
If there is an answer to the problem of corrupting influences on local council, it surely lies in the probity processes that should be second nature at every council – indeed, at all three levels of Australian government – but which are clearly sometimes absent or wanting. At the same time, far stronger donation declaration laws would help, as would the adoption of a single set of donation and electoral standards – where possible – for local, state and federal government alike.
And that’s without even looking at the practical side of defining a developer, or even a real estate agent. Labor might think it knows what it means when it talks about “developers”, and the connotations are far from positive. But those same “developers” build our homes, our schools and our offices. Should that rule them out of local government? No, it should not.