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Needless new record set for declaring conflicts of interest

26 Feb 2020

By Stephen Mayne, former City of Melbourne Councillor

While former Federal sports minister Bridget McKenzie and City of Casey councillors put on a masterclass when it comes to failing to declare or act upon conflicts of interest, the City of Melbourne councillors have gone to the other extreme.

At the February 4 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC), nine of the 10 councillors declared arguable conflicts and vacated the room when it came to voting on planning scheme amendment C278, which proposes much stronger protections for sunlight over public parks.

The amendment process was kicked off by a notice of motion from Greens Cr Cathy Oke in 2015 after a development was approved which overshadowed Gardiner Reserve in North Melbourne.

The CBD is already well protected and Development Victoria disappointingly persuaded the Planning Minister to carve our Docklands from the review, presumably to protect the value of large residual state government land holdings in Docklands.

Reflecting the significance of what is being proposed for the rest of the municipality, there were 119 submissions to council including from institutional heavyweights such as the AFL, Cricket Australia, Melbourne University, AFL clubs Carlton and Richmond, Lend Lease, the Department of Transport, Urbis, VicTrack, the Red Cross, Invest Victoria, the Property Council and the Royal Society.

However, none of these could be debated, commented upon or backed up at the February 4 committee meeting because every councillor with the exception of Nicolas Frances Gilley declared a conflict (Cr Jackie Watts was an apology) and left the room. It’s worth watching the webcast starting 21 minutes into proceedings and seeing how it played out over nine minutes as the councillors declared their conflicts and then the officers explained how they would progress the proposal to an independent planning panel using officer delegation powers.

Frankly, while the law is the law, the councillors have been too conservative here. It’s like when you set rates, everyone who owns property in the city is impacted but sometimes you do need to be a little pragmatic on conflict declarations.

Apart from the two councillors (Reece and Oke) who work for Melbourne University, none of the councillors explained the detail of the conflict, namely who the donor was and why it caused a conflict. So, I asked them all during public question time at the February 18 FMC meeting.

Speaking on behalf of Team Doyle, deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood explained that it was Brendan Sullivan, the husband of former Team Doyle councillor Tessa Sullivan, who made the donation which triggered the conflict. He owns an affected property in East Melbourne.

But Brendan Sullivan knew nothing of the amendment and didn’t even do a submission, so why did five councillors needlessly declare a conflict?

Cr Wood claimed they took a conservative position on advice.

Planning chair Nicholas Reece admitted to being “frustrated” by the loss of quorum but there didn’t seem much enthusiasm, from officers or councillors, to the proposition that they bring it back a second time for public debate with the councillors being more pragmatic and staying in the room.

C278 is a far-reaching amendment impacting on around 1400 properties, mainly by reducing future development potential. For instance, if the amendment passes, the Victorian Government would never be able to develop above Jolimont Station because this would overshadow the northern edges of Yarra Park.

There was only one request to speak (from Rupert Myer of Myer family fame) and 29 items of correspondence lodged before the February 4 meeting. It would have been much more but for the fact council officers contacted all 119 submitters a week earlier alerting them to the likely loss of quorum.

While campaign donations were a factor in eight of the nine conflict declarations (Cr Cathy Oke being ruled out solely because her employer Melbourne University did a submission), it is reassuring that none of the donors were property developers.

In the case of Cr Philip Le Liu, it was a donation from Sue Morphett, the former Pacific Brands CEO who ran for deputy Lord Mayor on his ticket put together by former planning chair Ken Ong.

Cr Rohan Leppert didn’t name his donor but said the conflict was triggered by a Greens party member who donated time to his 2018 Lord Mayoral by-election campaign and was now on the owners’ corporation committee of an apartment block adjacent to Flagstaff Gardens.

That’s pretty tenuous stuff to warrant a councillor to leave the room, particularly if the councillor is not proposing any amendments to the officer report which would benefit the donor.

Ever since Robert Doyle foolishly accepted more than $300,000 in donations from property developers for his 2012 campaign, loss of quorum has been a regular feature at City of Melbourne and this has undermined confidence in the council as a decision-making body.

Sure, it is better to lose quorum from conflict declarations than having conflicted councillors voting. But, for example, the current council is unable to make any decision on Crown Melbourne or broader poker machine matters because both Team Doyle and Lord Mayor Sally Capp have accepted campaign donations from Crown personnel (Harold Mitchell and Ann Peacock), the Australian Hotels Association, AHA members or a combination of all three.

I’m not aware of any council anywhere which has lost quorum more than 10 times due to conflict declaration over a seven-year period. Sometimes, such as on February 4, it was unnecessary because councillors took the “if in doubt get out” mantra too far.

In light of this, compromising campaign donations should be avoided by all candidates as much as possible in the upcoming election campaign so that the 2020-24 council doesn’t suffer the same regular loss of quorum.

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