The Redland City Council is in full retreat from a mess of its own making.
At best, it’s a precision display of naivety and incompetence, at worst, of stealth and duplicity. It’s all about (what else?) planning, property development and rezoning.
City council officers owe their prime allegiance to the public good, repaying the community’s implicit trust through planning decisions that are inclusive, untainted by favours or bias, and open to scrutiny. And if they’re not? Where’s the problem?
It’s right here, in Queensland.
“Clean Money in a Dirty System”, a compelling piece of recent research, notes, “barely a week passes without a media report somewhere in Australia alluding to an improper governance or procedural action in land development. Queensland is particularly renowned as a place where corrupt land development practices were allegedly allowed to flourish for decades.”
The allegations proved true when Justice Tony Fitzgerald’s enquiry front-paged Queensland’s endemic official corruption 25 years ago. But despite the rush to legislation, Fitzgerald dolefully observed in 2009 that…”Access to government can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their political connections to obtain success fees for deals between business and government.”
And the glittering prize?
In Queensland successful developers are hugely rewarded. News Corp reports that 44 of the State’s 100 wealthiest families made their money in property and construction. In this state, there is no restriction on developer donations to politicians. In NSW, where there is, Operation Spicer has revealed developers simply ignore the law, as did a dozen state politicians now forced to resign.
Lesson: elements within the development industry will go to any length to capture vulnerable politicians and officials and, as long as as it remains covert, this corruption is practically undetectable.
Which makes it critical, for their own reputations, that local government politicians and council officials involved in planning decisions, operate with the security lights of accountability and transparency always blazing – especially when developers come to call. Here’s what happens when they don’t.
The back story
Three years have passed since Karen Williams swept aside incumbent Melva Hobson to take the Redland City mayoralty. On election night, in April 2012, Williams proclaimed her crushing victory to a folksy gathering of happy supporters that played on YouTube like a win for the average punter.
But Williams 2012 was no grassroots campaign. Her victory was, by provincial standards, a well-managed and tight exercise in focused promises, a targeted trashing of Hobson’s record, heavy advertising and social media savvy. Crucially, she had an oversupply of something Hobson hardly had at all – other people’s money.
Post-election, the new Mayor’s Disclosure Return to the Electoral Commission detailed $138,372 in cash and kind gifts. A further $21,675 was raised by the Concerned Redlands Residents Association, fronted by a developer and a real estate agent. Their ‘concern’ lasted as long as the money did, (virtually all spent attacking Williams’ opponents) then it vanished, and so did the group.
Soon after Karen Williams became Mayor, a proposal from the previous Council that local developers might meet with Council planning staff on a regular basis, to improve their working relationship, was refloated. It appeared on the Council’s 2012/13 Organisational Plan, which all councillors approved, and by November 2012 the bureaucracy reported that a Development Industry Reference Group was on the drawing board.
By this time, the Mayor’s Disclosure Return had been lodged, and the identity of her major donors was on the public record. Her biggest backers were mainly local developers. How many would make it onto the new reference group? Was the whole thing pure payback: premium, sanctioned and regular access for donor developers to the key Council staff whose planning decisions could add millions to their profits? These concerns were justified by the history already mentioned, and are self-evident to anyone with a reading age over five.
The Mayor responded unequivocally to our questions about her involvement to this point. “I had no input into the membership, terms of reference or functioning of this group aside from what all councillors received through public reports and our support for the operational plan.”
Councillors who replied to Redlands2030, claimed exactly the same.
This being the case, it’s almost beyond belief that Council proceeded as it did. Disregarding the dangers implicit in this situation, and without reference to the Mayor or councillors, it constituted the new Development Industry Reference Group (DIRG) in violation of every proven safeguard against official corruption.
The identity of the participants, the privileged developers who would meet with planning officers behind the closed doors in Bloomfield Street, was strictly ‘need to know’. The elected representatives of the citizens of the Redlands were not to be told who was talking to whom, about what, in the DIRG meetings.
They, and hence we, were to be denied access to minutes of DIRG meetings, and even the Terms of Reference under which the DIRG was constituted were a group secret.
The fine print
So how come there was no immediate outcry from Redland City councillors when the DIRG opened for business, in 2013, with these extraordinary restrictions? Here’s how.
There was a general meeting of Council on 15th May, 2013. In the minutes, the existence of the new group was announced. “The first Development Assessment (DA) Industry Reference Group meeting was held in Q3. Feedback from industry was positive, with further meetings planned monthly at this stage.”
Actually, there’d already been a second meeting the day before.
The Mayor has subsequently mocked several councillors for missing these 25 words. They were never spoken. The attention of councillors was never drawn to them. You can assess the charge they should have noticed anyway, by finding them yourself. Go to the Council’s online minutes of the meeting. Locate and open the link to the Coordination Committee report. Scan its 10,200 words until you find the link to the Operation Plan Quarterly Performance Report for March 2013. Got that? Open it, and amongst its 6,500 words you’ll find the 25 above. Maybe. What are the chances you would have found them, if you weren’t even searching?
All the councillors who responded to our enquiries missed them entirely. The Mayor seems to be the only exception, and even divined the dangers behind the bland language, but was quite unfazed. “I trusted the officers to act professionally, and strictly to their code of conduct at all times, to achieve the best outcomes for the City.”
But what about the developers? How have they exploited the last two years, and the long luxurious hours of business class access to council planners? Council’s capitulation last week, revealing the names of the DIRG participants, has not included releasing the minutes of the meetings. So, still, we cannot know what happened behind the closed door. Which leaves us free to speculate.
“Clean Money in a Dirty System” is a good place to start. The authors found that the probability of winning rezoning applications increased greatly for ‘connected’ developers. They are, on average, 40% more likely to succeed by becoming entrenched as “insiders who are well-informed and well-connected to the bureaucratic procedures and work the system to their mutual advantage… a small set of connected property developers get the lion’s share of new property rights from rezoning.”
The Redlands’ very own “small set of connected property developers” all took their seats at the first meeting of the Redlands Development Reference Group. Have the 13 meetings returned a 40% advantage to them? We will never know, unless the minutes of those meetings are released, and can be compared with development approvals over the last two years.
But much of the damage is already done. It’s irrelevant that the group’s existence was not, technically, a secret. What matters is that Council officers were apparently blind to the dangers, and inevitable public perception of conducting meetings with developers in an atmosphere of anonymity and secrecy. These clandestine conditions should have been highlighted in 72 point capitals, and slapped down in front of every councillor for their unambiguous authorisation of what was, surely, a policy decision. Politics is about who gets what, when and how. The DIRG would always be perceived as being about that
The CEO, Bill Lyon is on leave, but his stand-in told Redlands2030, “Councillors were not invited to provide input into the DIRG’s Terms of Reference, the content of which was based upon those used by similar groups in line with established practice.” Not in Logan City it seems, where the Council has its own Development and Industry Reference Group, which publishes all its business, online, updated after every meeting.
Let’s hope this has just been an awful mistake. Maybe the fleeting, cryptic references to the DIRG in council meetings were oversights, and not coldly calculated to keep the whole sorry business flying below the radar. Maybe the developers in the DIRG meetings virtuously side-stepped each and every opportunity to advance their interests.
Meanwhile Council’s stalling continues, with “a report outlining a summary of all (DIRG) meetings” to be retrospectively made public next month. A “report outlining a summary” is four words, two of which suggest it will tell us nothing, and do nothing, to dispel growing suspicion.