In advance of publication next week of forthright interviews on all manner of controversies that have been visited on the Gold Coast City Council and its conduct under Mayor Ron Clarke since the March election that swept him to power, we present another special advance preview today of next week’s “Clarke chronicles”.

Without doubt the single most vexing issue that has created enormous on-going debate in the media (Gold Coast Bulletin), among some special interest protest groups and even among warring councillors, is the perception of a pro-development voting bloc.

Even before the election the Bulletin was persistent in seeking to track down the sourcing of various candidates donations that could be linked among other things to the creation of what the paper saw and I agree, was a centrally organised campaign war chest through the so-called Lionel Barden Trust Fund through which local developers made donations. This was neither against the law or was it incumbent on candidates to declare their donations until required by law after the election which all candidates as far as I know complied with. But the Bulletin was dogged in its determination to learn of their ancestry and just who was getting what from whom.

Yet the history of Gold Coast council politics suggests that by far the majority of successful candidates well before this election were the recipient of developer contributions, albeit perhaps more randomly than prior to the Lionel Barden Trust creating its more measured developer largesse.

While well within the law as it currently stands, the activities of this explicit developer linked trust before the election aroused a natural suspicion and its continuing reluctance or elusiveness to “come clean” immediately after the election before the due date for all councillors to declare all donations on a register, smacked strongly of a group who under the glare of the Bulletin’s probing, whether they liked it or not, dissembled in its explanation of its activities as if it did have something to hide.

The Bulletin reporter Alice Gorman was convinced that the trust’s activities linked to development money helped to deliver a number of pro-development councilors at the ballot box, and that therefore this constituted a developer friendly voting “bloc” within the council.

Despite all denials to the contrary by those candidates and even the Mayor, this resulted in her winning a regional Walkley award for getting to the bottom of the whole trust issue and how it was set up to dispense its donations. We all know hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the creation of the trust and then the stone-walling as to its activities played into the hands of those sensing some kind of untoward conspiracy.

Again no laws have been broken but when the Bulletin smelt a rat it thought the public had a right to know that there was organised developer money being sprayed around pre-election among council aspirants who it then surmised would be in at least some kind of debt of gratitude if nothing else when later serving on the council. Yet for many previous elections most elected councillors were likely to have been primarily funded through developer-sourced donations – it is the nature of the beast of Gold Coast local politics. So it is a fact of life, for better or worse, until somebody believes the laws governing Local Government election campaign donations are somehow encouraging bad government or enable influence to be at worst bought, and changes the system.

At the Gold Coast’s Local Government level, developers for as long as “white shoes” became a peculiar Queensland fashion statement, as with corporations who donate to federal and state political parties, make donations and in return have some kind of expectation that this may or may not help them in some way with their future business, without it being either corrupt or illegal. Neither John Howard, Mark Latham or even Peter Beattie have trouble accepting donations from organisations (let alone trade unions or peak employment bodies) who get to push their special interest because their donations at least guarantee them access to a hearing if nothing else?

Many of us may frown at the practice, but it’s neither a crime or necessarily a terrible thing except when somebody believes they are entitled to considerations that do compromise a party or an individual in doing their job honestly and hopefully without fear or favour. It is this last intangible that creates the kinds of swirling debate that has raged now on the Gold Coast for months as to how candidates on the receiving end of developers’ money are now somehow tainted or hopefully compromised in their decisions as councilors.

Double standards when comparing developer donations

Despite many years of this being part and parcel of the local council dynamic that developers pumping many millions if not tens of millions into projects that runs the full gamut of development requiring all kinds of council approvals and support, it seems it was only this last election where the developers became “organised” that we have this prospect now of some kind of pro-developer voting “bloc”.

One that even now if you accept there is a core of candidates as I do who did accept and get elected with the help of developer donations, cannot be claimed to be any kind of automatic “bloc” vote given the multiple personalities and allegiances within the council. Even the council’s most vehement anti-“bloc” critic Cr Dawn Crichlow accepted developer donations from her own ward at the last election. Yet the Bulletin or other council dissidents who have become “bloc” obsessed, don’t even begin to flag her as in some way likely to be in the pocket of any developer. Yet why the double standard?

This causes considerable bemusement to the Mayor in advance of his published thoughts with Crikey next week which deals forthrightly with most if not all the most contentious issues facing the council and its Mayor. Naturally this includes taking a detailed look at the whole issue of “the bloc” and the role of developers in the local scheme of things where Clarke defends both his council and his record against a plethora of previous criticisms. He also makes the case as to why was it the Bulletin didn’t always (and still doesn’t he believes) apply its own journalistic “sniffer dog” mentality on a number of key issues with an even hand, particularly considering the paper’s investigation and railing pre and post election against candidates receiving developer money to help fund their campaigns?

Clarke suggests that while the Bulletin was shrieking that developer money was being doled out to council candidates via the mysterious trust fund, concurrently on exactly the same issue it was thundering in its silence by comparison in its coverage of the two man war for Mayor between Clarke and incumbent Gary Baildon. While Clarke funded his own campaign entirely, who was backing Baildon and how hard did the Bulletin look?

Gold Coast boom creates developers’ haven

Yet ever since the election the Bulletin continues to make much of a so-called developer friendly voting “bloc” in the council who benefited from the developer trust fund. Clarke doesn’t disagree that the coast is a huge developers’ haven as the fastest growing city in Australia – certain to top 500,000 soon enough. Therefore he argues it’s not surprising – and certainly not irrational to expect that many candidates and current councillors at the last election were in receipt of developer donations. As you will read below, even a huge slice of Baildon’s campaign fund didn’t come from mums and dads or “Greenies”, but developers.

But as the volatile election campaign heated up the Bulletin, which is the single greatest driver of forging public opinion locally, learnt of the existence of a what was essentially a centralised developer driven campaign war chest that operated as the Lionel Barden Trust fund. It dispensed contributions to a slew of candidates presumably not paid up members of the Green Party. However, with no legal compulsion, those behind the trust were in no mood to play footsy with the paper, and even when it did come clean after the election as to its role and which candidates got what per the law after much dancing around the issue, the Bulletin had doggedly pursued the matter.

The Bulletin’s reporting of this trust fund eventually won then council reporter Alice Gorman a regional Walkley; and also helps fuel the paper’s belief that any successful trust fund graduate’s who made it on to council, were to all intents and purposes a pro-development voting bloc. Yet Baildon during his tenure as Mayor received no such blanket censure, or even during his battle to remain Mayor against Clarke, despite a level of developer campaign donations that are staggering.

Not for one moment would I suggest Baildon behaved during his time in council with anything other than proprietary in his dealings with developers, but if developer donations were being seen as “tainted”, why wasn’t he being held to the same accountability as that consistently visited on the so called “bloc” candidates?

But don’t take my word for it, I refer to the Gold Coast Sun which belied its free giveaway origins when on July 7 this year (although tucked away on page 38) – it published the following story and breakdown on Baildon’s campaign contributions for which the paper is to be thoroughly commended under this headline.

Baildon bid drew $196,000

THE development industry poured more than $150,000 into ex-mayor Gary Baildon’s unsuccessful bid to get Baildon re-elected.
The former mayor’s declaration of campaign gifts revealed a total of $196,903 – more than double the $93,204 he declared on March 26, the day before the election.

Major contributors included Soheil Abedian’s Sunland Group with $18,000 and the Ingles Group with $10,000. Interests linked to Hope Island developments tipped heavily into the re-election bid, including Craig Gore’s Aurora Developments ($20,000), John and Helen Fish ($5000), and financier City Pacific with $10,000. City Pacific has links to both Mr Fish and Sunland.

Other contributors were: Pask Developments ($5000); Mirvac ($7500); Vanwell ($2500); Lewiac ($7500); Great Southern Land ($7500); Australand ($5000); Lend Lease ($5000); Solmac Developments ($1000); Devine ($5000) Noel Gordon ($5000); Gordon Sun ($5000); Purchase Credit ($5000); Family Assets ($500); Coomera Resorts ($1500) Blue Sky Capital ($5000); Gemstone ($1000); Kings Beach No. 2 ($2000); Noraville ($10,000); PRD Consulting Services ($2000) and Property Sol Holdings ($5000).

Why is there a double standard when it comes to council donations?

I believe the Bulletin had every right as a newspaper to dig during an election campaign as to potential sources of campaign funding for all candidates, even while having no legal right to demand such disclosure? Candidates sure as hell don’t welcome it but if everything is transparent as the paper believed it should be, later talk of voting ‘blocs” is merely a fact of life after the election process has run its race if no laws are broken.

But any neutral observer is surely entitled to ask why it was so conscientious in its efforts to track developer donations to council candidates, yet as far as Baildon is concerned, despite his battle to remain as Mayor and effective leader of the city, his close ties to developers, while hardly a state secret, didn’t seem to overly excite the paper? Perhaps I missed that probing as I did something else recently in their defence. However, how come Baildon escaped such scrutiny that includes a surprising voluntary under reporting of the amount raised immediately before the election by the Bulletin?

This is an issue to be explored next week as the relationship between Rupert Murdoch’s Gold Coast Bulletin and defeated mayor Gary Baildon comes into focus.