Thursday, January 24, 2008

Time to clean up local body politics II

Over the last month I've been making some noise about the need for Electoral Finance Act-style transparency provisions to be applied to local body politics. Last Friday, the Manawatu Standard provided a perfect example of why they are necessary, by revealing the identity of the "anonymous" backer behind Palmerston North mayor Jono Naylor's purchase of his office (sadly offline). It turns out that this backer - city real estate developer and L J Hooker franchisee Keith Marriott - wasn't exactly unknown to Naylor, having donated $5,700 through his business as well. The trust was used simply to prevent the public from finding out that one man had funded more than 95% of Naylor's campaign.

Naylor immediately announced that he would not be voting on issues involving his campaign financier, saying that this was "not a legal requirement" but was necessary "to ensure people can be confident of my impartiality". Unfortunately, Marriot has already got his payoff. Last month, and just after his election expenses were announced, Naylor debated and voted for a planning change applied for by another trust run by... Keith Marriott. This raised eyebrows at the time, given Marriott's contributions through his business to Naylor's campaign and L J Hookers' benefiting from the project, but Naylor denied that there was any conflict of interest. Now it turns out that there was, and a pretty major one at that. While it's not clear exactly how much money Marriott will make, from a major subdivision you can bet it will be a lot more than $36,000. Which means he's more than got his money's worth. As for Naylor, it's worth noting that his sudden interest in impartiality arose only after he got caught. If his backer had not been revealed, he'd have been quite happy to keep the relationship - and his enormous conflicts of interest - secret. So much for Christian ethics.

This sort of corruption should not be tolerated in our local government. Unfortunately, by allowing the identities of donors to be kept secret (through either "anonymous" donations or laundering trusts), the current law pretty much encourages it. How many other local body politicians are corruptly selling us out to their "anonymous" donors? We simply have no way of knowing.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we want to prevent corruption in local body politics, then we need to start by preventing anonymous and laundered donations and identifying every donor. Otherwise, our existing protections against conflicts of interest are a bad joke. Beyond that, we also need to amend the Local Authorities (Members' Interests) Act 1968 to prevent local authority members from discussing or voting on issues affecting their major campaign donors, and to increase the (derisory) penalties for doing so. Otherwise, we are simply inviting corruption, and the outright purchase of local government by the rich.