Tuesday, 15 April 2008

NSW Labor faces royal commission call

The New South Wales Greens have called for a royal commission into state planning decisions, following a number of allegations the Government overrode advice to deliver huge windfalls to ALP donors.

The NSW Labor Party is conducting an audit of political donations received by MPs after a number of embarrassing revelations about undeclared amounts from developers.

State secretary Karl Bitar says the system is too complex and he looks forward to a ban on all political donations proposed by the Premier, but Greens MP Sylvia Hale is not convinced.

"What the ALP did not want to reveal publicly was just the extent to which they are indebted to the planning industry to finance their campaigns," she said.

Ms Hale says there are too many examples of Planning Minister Frank Sartor overriding independent advice in making decisions that have proved profitable for Labor donors.

She says Mr Sartor should be stood aside while there is an independent investigation.

"I believe it's got to be more than an ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption] investigation," she said.

"There needs to be a royal commission or its equivalent into all aspects of the planning decisions that are being made in this state and the influence that is exerted on those planning decisions by donations from major developers."

Ms Hale says the Minister's assertions that donations do not affect his decisions become more absurd each day.

A few years ago, property developers overtook the unions as the biggest donors to the state party, giving almost $15 million in nine years.

['CIA auditing Bin Laden']

NSW Labor yesterday revealed its audit had found the ALP head office failed to disclose more than $50,000 from Hunter Valley developer Buildev to Newcastle MP Jodi McKay's election campaign.

The ALP admitted the donations were among many discrepancies picked up after the Greens released Election Funding Authority documents that brought the case to light.

Acting Opposition Leader Andrew Stoner is not convinced about Labor's audit, which he says is a smokescreen.

"They have got to be joking - after at least three Labor MPs have failed to declare developer donations, the ALP's Sussex Street headquarters is going to conduct an audit," he said.

"That is like [the CIA] auditing [bin Laden] to check for terrorism...

"The Labor Party is taking people for fools if they think that they're going to believe that these failures to declare developer donations were somehow an honest mistake.

"I think they are also taking people for fools if they think they'll buy an internal audit by the NSW ALP headquarters at Sussex Street."

'Fraught area for reform'

Independent Port Macquarie MP Rob Oakeshott says there is a growing consensus that NSW donations laws need to be tightened.

Mr Oakeshott says he and representatives of all the political parties have discussed reforms with the Premier's staff.

"At this stage, it does look like there are attempts to undergo genuine reform," he said. "However, this is a fraught area and a really difficult area to get that reform that I think everyone wants."

He says some of the models being put forward would favour established political parties and cripple independent politicians.

"If we are going to have an underlying principal of fair democracy, the candidate who's going to pull five votes needs to be able to access as much public funding as the most popular candidate or an existing Member of Parliament," he said.

'Donations a factor of business'

The donations scandal is widening as the State Government fends off claims.

Developer Hardie Holdings has admitted it paid almost $500,000 in seven years to gain access to state ministers and lobby them to rezone a large area of land in the Hunter Valley for housing.

Mr Sartor stepped in to rezone the land in 2006 against the advice of his department but he has denied the decision had anything to do with political donations.

The development - a new town called Huntlee that will house about 20,000 people - is one of the largest personally approved by Mr Sartor.

Hardie Holdings general manager Matt Somers said that developers had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to gain access to State Government ministers.

"We've just dealt with it as a factor of business," he said.

Mr Somers' claims were supported by political historian and ALP member Peter Botsman and a former corruption commissioner, but Mr Sartor yesterday dismissed them as "foolish".

However, some in the higher levels of the party fear the ALP's focus on fundraising could be destructive.

NSW ALP assistant general secretary Luke Foley said he feared the ALP was engaging in an empty pursuit of power.

"There's a risk that some people may think they can earn brownie points by bringing in the dollars...

"We ought not tolerate a culture where there's even a perception that bringing in the dollars for the party will get you ahead within the ranks of your political party."

Yesterday's revelations came after it emerged Labor's MP for Wollongong, Noreen Hay, raised almost double the amount declared for the 2007 election campaign, taking her total from $120,000 to $230,000.

It was also revealed a developer adversely named in the corruption inquiry into Wollongong Council, Frank Vellar, gave Ms Hay rent-free office space for her campaign headquarters.

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