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Government by cronyism

The air of patronage and cronyism that has swirled about the Barr government in recent months took on a brisk new edge this week. The ABC News site posted a video of Andrew Barr delivering a "testimonial" for Dexar Group, a private company which trades in the ACT as the Independent Property Group. In his opening remarks, the chief minister described the video as testimonial. The words used ("most awarded real estate agency in Australia … provides a range of very important services … achieved excellent results for the ACT government") were redolent more of puffery than support, however.

The short video was never meant for local consumption — Dexar intended it as a marketing tool to help it drum up Chinese interest in buying, leasing, developing or managing Canberra property.

High public office-holders generally do not endorse specific companies or products in public (at least not until they retire) and the chief minister's gift of his time and the authority of his office to Dexar has elicited surprise, concern and some disapproval in various quarters. The opposition leader, Jeremy Hanson, says Mr Barr may have acted inappropriately, and he will refer the matter to the ACT's commissioner for standards, Ken Crispin, QC for possible investigation. He's also said he will write to Mr Barr seeking an explanation.

In a later statement, Mr Barr argued it was a chief minister's job "to support Canberra businesses to grow and expand", that companies expanding into international markets can benefit significantly from ACT government support, and that he hopes to have "more opportunities to endorse businesses" in the future. His logic is credible, but only up to a point. Chief ministers and premiers do indeed spruik the businesses or products of their home state or territory. They do so in broad-brush terms, however, since to single out individual brands or products would inevitably give rise to perceptions of conflict of interest.

An effusive testimonial for a private company that could not be viewed (even in the kindest light) as unique, raises suspicions – much as Mr Barr might pretend otherwise.

The Dexar Group does big business with the ACT government. Large numbers of Mr Fluffy blocks have been marketed and sold by the Independent Property Group, so too blocks in new suburban sub-divisions. Purdon Planning, a consultancy half-owned by the Dexar Group, was involved in drawing up Canberra's light rail master plan, and in furthering the Williamsdale Solar Farm's development application.

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Of the many private companies which donate money to ACT Labor, Dexar is one of the more generous, having pledged nearly $14,000 since July 2013. Dexar Group chief executive John Runko denies the donations played any part in Mr Barr's decision to film the video, saying "I don't think the chief minister owes me any favours, and I don't think the chief minister thinks he owes me any favours".

If well-intentioned, Mr Runko's unfortunately worded clarification is scarcely credible. The Barr administration pays little heed to the ethical requirement that governments keep corporate shills and others with their hands at a respectful distance, particularly if they are ex-MLAs, former staffers and other old mates. Indeed, as the Manuka Oval saga illustrates, it invites them right in for a cosy chat. When it was suggested recently that allowing a minister's husband to lobby MLAs (including his wife) for the oval redevelopment might be creating a perception problem for the government, Mr Barr flatly rejected the criticism, even suggesting it was sexist in nature.

Blanket denials and sham denunciations are the stock in trade of politicians other than Mr Barr. However, the chief minister's "nothing to see here" rhetoric is remarkable for its stubbornness. Plain ignorance or oversight of the rules of government – the failure to observe the unsolicited development proposal guideline that "no approaches will be made to minister or other officers within the ACT government … prior, during and after the phased process" being just one instance – may be a factor.

The more probable cause is that Mr Barr's long stint in the corridors of power (which goes back to 2002 and a jobs as as an adviser to John Hargreaves) has bred in him the firm belief that he can do no wrong. That complacency is writ large in the Dexar video.