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A failed bid to ban property investors from serving as local councillors has reignited debate about who should sit on local councils following a wave of scandals involving property developers and the state’s ongoing housing crisis.
Georges River Labor councillor Veronica Ficarra last week put forward a motion for a ban on property developers, real estate agents and property investors from standing as candidates in council elections.
“These individuals all receive a substantial source of their financial prosperity from targeted speculation on the property and rental market”, she said.
Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig pledged to examine any measures to improve the integrity of council decisions.Credit: Dion Georgopoulos
Her motion failed to win support from fellow councillors, but Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig said strengthening probity mechanisms to ensure greater transparency about council decisions “is a priority of mine”.
“Communities deserve to know their elected councillors are acting with integrity,” he said. “But allegations of impropriety against a small number of bad characters unfairly tarnish the good name of the many hardworking, honest councillors across the state.”
Hoenig said he would examine any measures to improve the integrity of council decisions “as I look to fix broader issues facing local government in NSW”.
A parliamentary inquiry earlier this year into allegations of impropriety between Liberal Party councillors on The Hills Shire and property developers was halted amid a probe by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
The NSW anti-corruption watchdog in August found three former Hurstville and Georges River councillors engaged in serious corrupt conduct for accepting trips to China and money from property developers in return for supporting two apartment projects.
The NSW government suspended Canada Bay mayor Angelo Tsirekas from holding civic office in November after the ICAC found he engaged in serious corrupt conduct by accepting benefits from developers in exchange for advancing their apartment projects.
NSW Labor made two unsuccessful attempts while in Opposition to introduce a ban on property developers and real estate agents from serving as councillors.
A ban on property developers and agents serving on council has the support of the Greens and NSW’s peak local government body, but is opposed by the property industry.
Balmain Greens MP Kobi Shetty said her party supported a ban as there was always more that could be done to strengthen provisions to ensure vested interests do not influence decision-making at any level of government.
A Local Government NSW spokesman said it supported a ban on property developers, real estate agents and their relatives and close associates – investors, owners and beneficiaries – from serving as councillors in urban areas.
The spokesman said more planning decisions are made by the state government, yet there is no prohibition on the types of jobs MPs may have before their election.
Real Estate Institute of NSW chief executive Tim McKibbin, however, said the proposed ban was a political response.
“Addressing corruption and driving community confidence in their councillors will come from improved governance,” he said.
Urban Taskforce chief executive Tom Forrest said property developers took the risk of developing land into housing and commercial and industrial buildings for jobs, and accounted for more than 15 per cent of employment in NSW.
“They have real-life experience and should not be casually dismissed in a cheap shot from any politician,” he said.
NSW Liberals leader Mark Speakman said integrity in local government “and for that matter in all levels of government, is very important”.
However, Speakman declined to say whether he supported prohibitions on who can serve as local councillor.
Centre for Public Integrity director Geoffrey Watson SC said banning property developers and real estate agents from sitting on councils was an “obviously good” reform that would have widespread support in the community and across the crossbenchers.
The Australia Institute’s democracy and accountability program director Bill Browne said there was a long history of property developers exercising undue influence on local and state governments, including outright bribery.
This justified the restrictions on property developer political participation, including NSW’s donation ban, he said. “Any limitation on the right to run for office should be very narrow and firmly justified.
“Ultimately, it is for voters to decide whether a candidate understands and cares about their needs.”
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