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Australia Scraps Controversial Planning Control Law

The New South Wales government in Australia has scrapped a controversial law that permits local Councillors to vote on planning control amendments that could potentially benefit them.

Local Government Minister Paul Toole announced the decision after the business and political actions of Salim Mehajer, Auburn deputy mayor, came under scrutiny for over a week. Opposition Leader Luke Foley had called for the elimination of the law, which the O’Farrell government had introduced in 2012.

Mr Foley also called for a ban on property agents and developers being councillors, and said that this change needed to be legislated before next year’s local government elections. He insisted that developers should not be allowed to sit in judgement on their own developments, given the huge conflict of interest involved.

The Labor Government has declared property developers ineligible for pre-selection at local, state, and government levels.

Salim Mehajer’s business and political agenda came under scrutiny after his highly-publicised wedding, during which he blocked off an entire street without obtaining the proper authorisation beforehand. He later took out a newspaper ad apologising for the disruption and paid a $220 fine, but thousands still call for him to be sacked.

Mehajer, a property developer, had been empowered to vote on conditions that potentially benefit him, thanks to an amendment to Section 451 of the Local Government Act that was passed in 2012. The amendment allowed councillors to vote on planning control changes they have a vested interest in as long as they declare that interest beforehand.

Ronney Oueik, mayor of Auburn, is also a property developer.

There was a motion a last week’s Auburn council meeting to have the Minister for Local Government investigate the deputy mayor’s conduct, but it failed to win enough support.

Mr Foley argued that allowing property developers to vote on matters that they stand to profit from “defies logic” and said the community should be granted a voice on mayoral leadership.

“We should remove any undue influence from council elections with well overdue campaign finance reform,” he said.

In a public statement, Mr Toole confirmed that the relevant section of the Local Government Act would be amended to ensure that no councillor could vote on matters in which they have a pecuniary interest.

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Mr Foley had also called for a ban on real estate agents and property developers from becoming councillors, but Keith Rhoades, the President of Local Government NSW had reservations. He stated that the necessity for such a restriction was not clear-cut, and urged more discussion and debate on the subject.

Mr Rhoades questioned the wisdom of ruling out real estate agents or people whose primary occupation is in the area of property development. He pointed out that when someone like a real estate agent or developer is standing for council, the community is clearly aware of who they are voting for.

Cllr Rhoades said that many real estate agents and developers “contribute a hell of a lot to their local communities” and should not be discouraged from running for council.

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