Luke Foley might be right. Last week's report of a public inquiry into the former Auburn Council makes a compelling case as to why the government should not allow property developers and real estate agents to sit on local councils. That's not because the inquiry finds that Salim Mehajer, Ronney Oueik and the rest did anything wrong. It is because the inquiry finds they did nothing wrong.
Working through the report into the colourful former council provokes a strange mix of reactions. On the one hand, anyone who reads the 234 pages cannot help but be exhausted by the exhaustive attempts by the dominant cabal at Auburn to manipulate local government in ways that defied planning sense or system, and which on occasions stood to benefit themselves. You get the sense these councillors perceived there was a finite period of time in which they could make hay, and they hustled hard to harvest in the years available to them.
But you also can't read the inquiry report and think it is anything less than a whitewash. It has not produced damning evidence or findings. It will not make life difficult for anyone. And it makes no recommendations that would improve the day-to-day culture of a council. To my mind the inquiry and report into Auburn, along with the government's reaction to that report, provide no reason not to think that all this is not simply going to happen again.
The Auburn report by Commissioner Richard Beasley SC was, for a start, limited by its terms of reference. The inquiry was not a "corruption" inquiry, in that it was looking at broad malfeasance in public office. It examined, largely, whether provisions of the Local Government Act had been breached. And on the evidence of the inquiry, it is and will continue to be difficult to establish breaches of that Act's standards of honesty and reasonableness of behaviour to a required level of certainty.
Perhaps that's because everyone at Auburn was behaving reasonably. That includes Salim Mehajer, the former deputy mayor whose companies purchased the right to develop a council-owned car park and who then repeatedly managed to extend the terms of that contract on terms favourable to those companies. That also includes Ronney Oueik, the former councillor and Liberal Party candidate who developed buildings with bedrooms that were not paid for, and yet managed to escape council prosecution. Or perhaps that is because the inquiry simply failed to come across the gun-smoke needed to prove a lack of reasonable behaviour.
The inquiry drilled into four planning proposals supported by the dominant majority in Auburn. Each proposal turned up evidence that was, at various times, confused and curious. But patterns emerged. Council staff prepared proposals that ultimately met with the approval of the dominant bloc of councillors. These proposals often differed from previous studies recommending much less intensive development. And then when they got to the inquiry, staff denounced the merits of the proposals they had helped prepare. Councillors, meanwhile, said they supported the proposals because they were proposed by the staff.
Even under the spotlight of a public inquiry, it seems only too easy to make a reasonable argument to justify any development on any plot of land across the city. The inquiry, for instance, looked at a council proposal to extend a Berala rezoning into a suburban street where former councillor Hicham Zraika owned two residential properties.
Two former independent reports had made no such recommendation, and if you walk around the area, the idea of multi-storey commercial and residential building on the street in question is intuitively bizarre. But the street is reasonably close to a train station. And people are always saying we need more apartments and more shops. Why not just rezone there and make a few people a few million dollars? In multiple instances, the Auburn inquiry failed to pierce such veneers of reasonableness.
Yet even if the inquiry failed to establish unlawfulness in decision-making, it at least established that the outcomes that would have resulted from Auburn's decisions would have been contrary to the interests of the community. Three of the four redevelopment proposals lacked planning merit, Beasley found. He therefore supported the decision of the administrator of Cumberland Council, which has taken over the area, to halt the planning changes.
In response to one recommendation from Beasley, the government has said it will introduce provisions allowing witnesses at public inquiries to be compelled to answer questions. It has previously toughened disclosure requirements for councillors, and strengthened penalties for breaches of those requirements. Council mergers should encourage more scrutiny. And proposed changes to planning legislation could also give councillors fewer opportunities to decide on the merits of individual planning or development applications.
But the government has repeatedly resisted the call by Luke Foley, the Labor leader, to ban those with a direct financial stake in the property development industry from serving as councillors.
The Auburn inquiry reveals, fundamentally, that the problem at Auburn was one of culture. A frenzied councillor commitment to development at any price, at any spot, through any means, bled through the organisation. Whether the councillors were crooked or just crafty, the Auburn experience shows what can happen when a group committed to making money out of property take over local government. The inquiry found that the way in which they were attempting to change their community lacked merit. Why not change the types of people that can be elected to positions that have this power?
If the Auburn experience happens again, there or elsewhere, the fault will not only lie with those involved. It will lie also with Baird, Berejiklian, Toole, Upton and others who had an opportunity to change the system and yet, for whatever reasons of their own, decided against doing so.