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Buying influence

By Brad Pedersen - posted Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Urban Task Force, a lobby group for developers, has recently called for a “blanket ban on any form of political party donations”.

This has shocked many observers who thought the development lobby would be the last group to seek such a ban. After all, the development lobby is the single biggest donor group and widely suspected of hugely benefiting from their donations.

So, should this call for a “blanket ban on donations” by this developer lobby be taken at face value and applauded? Should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Or is it just a cynical PR exercise to muddy the waters? The truth is, it’s the latter.


Their Chief Executive Aaron Gadiel has made a number of clever public statements that need, dare I say, deconstruction.

Firstly, Mr Aarons claims that donations should be banned, not because they are corrupting, but because anybody who donates “can have their reputations tarnished by the quick conclusions of cynical individuals”. The implication here that Mr Aarons wants us to swallow is that these donations are not given for any improper or self interested motives. Only a cynic would think that. Really? Why then do his developer mates donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to both political parties? Is it because they think politicians are nice guys? Unlikely.

Forgive my cynicism, but I believe they donate because they want something. I also believe they are getting what they want. Both ALP and Liberal governments have accepted huge donations from developers. These developers have then gone on to make enormous financial benefits from government decisions. The donations are not handed over because of any altruistic enthusiasm for democracy. Even if there is no direct undertaking on behalf of the beneficiaries, clearly it’s about buying influence. These “donations” are legalised bribery.

But why would the development lobby publicly call for a “blanket ban” on donations? This is particularly strange when all the other big time corporate lobby groups are constantly trying to hide from this sensitive issue.

A clue lies in Mr Aaron’s statement that we “should not single out any section of society for special treatment”. This is thinly disguised self interest. His concern here is that developers are getting a “special treatment”. This is true. There is a movement afoot in New South Wales local government circles among non aligned independent councillors to eliminate all developer donations to council candidates. For example, at Manly Council, a new policy calls on all candidates to sign a statutory declaration committing themselves to not accepting any donations from developers. There are moves afoot in other councils to do similarly. This is the “special treatment” Mr Aarons and his developer mates fear.

Mr Aarons is correct; the development industry is being specifically targeted. But for good reasons. Why? Because the major function for local government is to oversee developments and there is a growing concern that developers are fundamentally corrupting the local democratic process. The influence of developer donations is seen to trickle right down through the system, through the Labor and Liberal party machines, and into places it does not belong.


With this background it becomes clearer why this developer lobby is calling for a “blanket ban” and why they are arguing that we “should not single out any section of society for special treatment”. They are slyly attempting to deflect attention away from themselves. They want to spread the blame and direct the focus onto the whole corporate sector. This developers’ lobby is trying to fool the public into rejecting the current move to ban developer donations  by urging us all to focus only on the broader aim of a blanket ban across the whole corporate sector. They know this will never happen. In the same breath they are masquerading as “holier than thou”, while cynically undermining the movement to ban developer donations to local councillors. It’s a clever attempt to muddy the waters and stifle reform so they can continue being the biggest donors and the worst offenders.

There are many in local government that would love to see a blanket ban eliminating all donations, but they are unwilling to sit back and wait for a Labor or Liberal government to act. The reason this movement has taken root in local government is because, unlike state and federal governments, there are councils which have a majority of non-aligned independent councillors, not beholden to any party machine.

May I humbly suggest to Mr Aarons and his developer mates, that if they really believe that donations should be banned, then he should lead the charge by immediately calling on his own industry to simply stop donating. The truth is there’s little chance of that happening. The only principle the development lobby is committed to is continuing its undue influence over our politicians so as to maximise their profits.

The time has come to seriously confront this cancer in our political system. The control of our governments by political parties and politicians riddled with donor cash should not be seen as anything other than the breakdown of fundamental aspects of our democracy. The time is well overdue for the public and the media to launch a sustained attack on this system of vote buying and the corruption of our democracy. Eliminating developer donations is a good place to start.

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About the Author

Brad Pedersen was previously an independent Deputy Mayor of Manly and is President of Democracy Watch - Australians for Political Funding Reforms.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Brad Pedersen

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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