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Undermining local democracy: Macedon Ranges: Pork Barelling and other forms of Influence

Original article from Macedon Ranges Residents' Association (www.mrra.asn.au)

(16/7/08 - SG) How do we know if our politicians, councillors or decisions have been bought? The short answer is, we don't.

We need look no further than New South Wales and the Wollongong scandal for confirmation that money can buy governments and decisions, particularly planning decisions. Yet NSW has an Independent Commission Against Corruption [ICAC], something we don't have in Victoria.

So how bad is it in Victoria, where accountability in any form no longer seems to kick up as one of the State's strong points?

In the past week, 3 articles have appeared in the Age newspaper - shocking and revealing stuff. Written by veteran journos Royce Millar and Kenneth Davidson, the articles snap the spotlight onto Victoria's lack of an ICAC, lack of accountability, and shifting views on and stubborn political denial that there's a problem when it comes to who is paying who in politics. From these articles, it seems Victoria's Premier sees political donations not as potentially corrupting influences but just part of a healthy democracy. Like kissing babies, perhaps?

You can access the Age articles by clicking the following links:

MRRA Says:

In the first article, Millar takes the discussion to the next logical step, and raises the issue of political donations and sponsorship in local government. And what a good discussion it is.

Anyone who thinks buying influence doesn't happen in local government should think again. It's bad enough if it's happening at Federal and State levels, but in those arenas there is more scrutiny and access so potentially more public pressure, and more chance of being caught.

In comparison, it can go almost unseen and undetected at local government level. A nod, a wink, a quiet word; rarely anything as crude as a brown paper bag or a pair of white shoes. Delivering 'favours for mates' can be something as subtle as promising to vote for what another Councillor wants if they'll vote for you this time, overlooking a conflict of interest, or orchestrating noisy albeit minority support for pet projects. These are just some of the ways private agendas can be delivered.

Millar raises an interesting point: while Councillors have to declare donations received during an election campaign, they don't have to declare them until well after the election. Their sponsors remain anonymous when you go to vote. It's all a secret, until they start to vote.

MRRA finds it a very relevant subject, given the recent invention of Macedon Ranges Residents' Secretariat Limited, a company representing development interests, possibly even political party interests, that seems intent on trying to confuse the Macedon Ranges' community into thinking it's us, MRRA Inc - i.e. a 'good guy' acting in the interests of the wider community - to the point of even pinching most of our name! Flattering, but...

MRRA estimates that to date, MRRS Ltd may have spent something in the order of well over $10,000 launching itself and its agenda (the latest effort being a survey sent to all households in the Shire, replete with reply paid envelopes - who could afford that!!!). Not to mention the individual numbering on each "ballot paper" (survey form) which must have cost a fortune to print. But wait, there's more! No, not a free set of knives, but MRRS Ltd is even giving away an expensive free meal - and free transport to and from home - to tempt residents into playing its game. And the feeling in our water is that neither the 'spend' nor the 'big sell' is over yet...

What could be worth that type of investment by business, development and real estate interests? And who exactly are all those interests? What do they want? Will all be revealed anytime soon?

Which leads us to the next question. Is the long-term objective of MRRS Ltd to get people elected onto council who will do what MRRS Ltd wants? Is that why MRRS Ltd says on its survey form, "MRRS offers assistance to potential candidates prior to elections and post elections, when elected..."? [our emphasis]

And how does MRRS Ltd's invitation to residents to become members work? MRRS Ltd has already publicly stated its recruitment will be through hand-picked secondment of like-minded people by its directors. In any event, don't you usually have to buy shares to be a 'member' of a company? MRRS Ltd is a public company, so do residents need a stock broker to become a 'member'?

Crickey, it's all too convoluted and complicated for us, but then MRRA is just a grass-roots community group used to its members joining up normally - they make a written application and pay an annual fee.

The grubby world of buying political influence is one where decisions are consistently made to serve self- and vested interests. Merit and 'public good' doesn't come into it. Is there really that much at stake? You betcha. There's big, big money in buying governments and influence (look no further than Wollongong, for example), and in stacking Councils with 'like-minded' mates to ensure favourable outcomes. Under the right conditions, it can spread like an aggressive cancer. Does Macedon Ranges have the disease?

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