Mar 17, 2010

Brumby’s poor disclosure over donations and jobs for relatives

While there are literally hundreds of examples of politicians either employing their relatives or having party colleagues take them on, very few have reached the scale of Victorian Premier John Brumby’s family.

Stephen Mayne — Journalist and Founder

Stephen Mayne

Journalist and Founder

When the Herald Sun splashed last Friday with the story of four John Brumby relatives being on the public payroll in Victoria, it was one of those classic editorial judgement dilemmas. Is it a scandal or a tabloid beat up? The Herald Sun followed up in Saturday’s paper with revelations that two relatives of sports minister James Merlino are employed in his electorate office, while four coalition MPs were also named for hiring family members. The Age is yet to report a word of this, presumably concluding there is nothing wrong. However, the Fairfax broadsheet’s co-located radio brethren at 3AW weren’t so reluctant. Neil Mitchell weighed in on Friday morning and then Derryn Hinch came back for a second serve, including this interview with your correspondent. While there are literally hundreds of examples of politicians either employing their relatives or having party colleagues take them on, very few have reached the scale of Brumby’s family. Other political dynasties who have managed four family members on the public payroll include Mal Colston, Ross Lightfoot, Bob Katter, Leo McLeay, former Queensland Labor MP John Budd, Bob Carr’s former police minister Paul Whelan and former Queensland Liberal Kay Elson. We’re not for a moment suggesting the Brumby family is rorting anything and it should be noted that electorate staff do need to be loyal people familiar with the pressures politics brings on families. However, I bumped into a former Bracks government minister last month and his biggest criticism of John Brumby was the way staff appointments were now a product of factional patronage, rather than professionalism. When Steve Bracks first became Victorian Premier, he engaged an HR firm to help staff political offices. This is a classic sign of decay that afflicts all long-term governments. Peta Duke, the now re-assigned press secretary to Victorian planning minister Justin Madden, has been widely pilloried for accidentally sending this extraordinarily cynical media plan to the ABC. How did Duke get the job in the first place and how has she kept her job? The integrity of Victoria’s entire planning process has now been called into question at a time when Brumby is still resisting calls for an independent anti-corruption body. While Brumby seems a decent and competent Premier, he’s got a blind spot when it comes to transparency and a glass jaw that seems to preclude any admission that something may be wrong. Look no further than the on-going operation of Progressive Business, an institutionally flawed system that encourages developers to pay for ministerial access. While federal Labor was happy to disclose every donation above $1000 for 2008-09, the Victorian ALP took the governance low road and stuck with John Howard’s  higher threshold of almost $11,000. This meant Progressive Business only disclosed the identity of six donors -- Visy, Westfield, Crown, Abigroup, Grollo and Northbridge Investments -- who collectively gave $147,950. But if you look at this return lodged with the AEC, Progressive Business pulled in $1.5 million from its cash for access events in 2008-09 so the disclosure only covers 10% of donations. With Brumby and Madden riding roughshod over Victorian councils by calling in planning proposals at an unprecedented rate, you just don’t know which developers have literally paid money to see Labor politicians and lobby for their particular project to be approved by the minister. While some of those 12 Woolworths big box hardware stores simultaneously approved last month may have merit, there is no visibility as to whether a Woolworths lobbyist paid to sit with the minister at a function recently. Any such monies changing hands should be disclosed. And it’s no different with taxpayer money passing to the relatives of politicians in the form of wages. If you’re going to do it, disclose it and defend it.

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