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Does Simon Corbell give good value in stewardship?

Date

Jack Waterford

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell. Photo: Rohan Thomson

When Canberra gets its equivalent of an Independent Commission Against Corruption, almost the last of the state and territorial government systems to do so, the body should be as focused on exposing incompetence, mismanagement and failure to secure the public interest as it is on corruption.

A good place to start would be investigating the public benefit from 25 years of political and administrative dealings between ACT politicians and officials, and the top levels of the four major football codes.

As a priority, this could compete against mismanagement and corruption of the functions of ACT planning, and the problems created for future stewards of the territory by a headlong rush to maximise profits from land sales.

The advantage of starting with football could be that a good deal of the secret transfer of money from public to private operators of football occurs by the exercise of largely unaccountable deals and discretions over land leases.

No one has even drawn together the accounts of these transfers, but a good guess would be that over $200 million of ACT public money has gone to the Raiders, the Brumbies, and various AFL teams over the past 25 years. With luck, and Andrew Barr's enthusiasm for a new stadium, they might get the same again in the next five years.

This does not include the more justifiable provision of grants, grounds, maintenance and subsidies for community and suburban-level sport. Nor does it include the additional enormous sums drawn from the local community, if not the Treasury, by the operators of these sports by their accumulation of poker machines. It has become a feature of the system that the economics of pokies play a role in "gaming" ACT politicians and officials for massive appropriations of public money to the football entities.  

Thus old suburban clubs, with some pokie licences, begin to fail for demographic reasons. They are "rescued" by big clubs (including, as well as the football clubs, the ACT Labor Club, whose existence always gives Labor politicians an appearance of being compromised). But the big fish reluctantly announces that it must close, shifts the pokies to more remunerative venues, and demands the right to build a block of flats on the site, originally given for nothing.

Maybe a fraction will come back as betterment. But government supports redevelopment, and sees it as a perfectly reasonable way of a sport supporting itself. That this is exactly the same as a direct grant of money from the ACT government, without the ordinary political processes of competing against other priorities of government, is ignored.

ACT politicians and officials who are played in such misappropriations are not, in my experience, corrupt. But they have a corrupted view of where the public interest lies, and they are neither good nor prudent stewards and trustees of the public's money, nor being held properly to account by the existing systems.

It is within the remit of the ACT Auditor-General to consider the diversion of public money into private sporting hands, but there are competing demands on the attentions of that office, which is, not coincidentally, starved of resources. The smarties who benefit have tended to be insiders with rights, powers and influence not available to all. All too often, our politicians have been boosters, supporters and, at the end of the day, benefactors (with public money) of the people concerned.

Many of the players believe they are serving a worthy purpose, going beyond the supposed value of the particular sport involved. Big sporting events, like blockbuster exhibitions at the National Gallery, draw tourists into Canberra. They eat and drink at Canberra establishments and stay in Canberra hotels, sometimes shopping at Canberra shops.

Thus, it is said, some seed money to create the event can pay big dividends. There are any number of commercial consultants who, for money, can draw up a paper purporting to "prove" that the public money going into various sports, or horse racing, "generates" such a dividend, and that the "industry" itself is directly responsible for the employment of X hundred people, and indirectly Y thousand. Most reports are entirely bosh, even though they are cited by agencies and politicians as if they were independent advice. 

One does not usually need a trained terrier to detect the presence of rats. The Braddon Oval would be a case in point. It was originally an open field with a cricket pitch. It was eventually dedicated primarily to rugby league, at a peppercorn rent and fenced off.

Then NSW got poker machine laws, but the ACT did not until 20 years later. By about 1973, the Queanbeyan Leagues Club had 50,000 members (more than 80 per cent from Canberra) and effectively ran the local competition, ultimately establishing the Raiders, initially at Queanbeyan, and using the local competition as a feeder system.

Alas, the changes were not accompanied by legal changes and, long after the old system was defunct, a brawl developed between two groups as to who "owned" Braddon Oval. Neither had paid a penny for it.

The brawl was so unseemly that politicians attempted to mediate it, in part with the public purse. In a Solomon-like compromise, one otherwise defunct body was allowed to "own" the clubhouse, and the other, who "owned" the Raiders, have the ground. The ACT government even, helpfully, drew up two concessional leases to reflect the "deal''. It should have forfeited the lease there and then.

Those operating the club also made money on the side (Crackerjack-style) by providing a private car park to nearby office workers. In due course, the club was "sold" back to the Raiders, who later closed it down. But the Raiders now want to redevelop the club block for offices and flats. Actually, they want to redevelop the whole oval and, in due course, supine ministers will agree to let them.

Redevelopment of the whole area would not be a bad idea, but it is difficult to see what moral or legal right the Raiders should have to plan it, or profit from the difference in value as a sports ground and a site for mixed residential and commercial development.

An application to change the lease from its concessional status came before the ACT planners. Accompanying material, with valuations and discussions of the great benefits that would accrue to the public interest were put forward in the normal way. ACT planning authorities live in terror of being accused of being "against" development, or infill, and are usually unworried, even about deviation from the plan, so long as no one objects.

Under the law, the proposal had to be subjected to a social impact assessment on the effect on the public interest, the benefit to the community and the balance of public-private benefit. But the assessment, like the material forwarded on to those who drafted it, ended up being little more than a cut and paste of the applicant's claims.  

Then it came to the minister, Simon Corbell, who adopted departmental advice, albeit by a new system he claims to promote a new level of transparency and accountability. He published an instrument in which he enumerated the public interests involved but his published reasons were essentially a cut and paste of the original application as it had come to him. 

"The [2008] changes to the territory plan indicates the territory's intentions for the Braddon area and this site in particular,'' he said. "If the territory had wanted it to remain as restricted access recreation, or recreation space available to the public, the zone would not have been changed. It is important to note that the Northbourne Oval itself remains restricted access recreation and is not proposed for development''. Yet.

Corbell also seemed to think he has no power to resume or acquire land unless it is for "a public purpose". If this is the law, all land bankers, speculators or people not using or occupying their leases can rest easy, unless they fear the ACT wants to put a tram or bike path through, or a jail on, the premises.

The ACT Civil and Administrative Appeal Tribunal was as puzzled as I am about whether Corbell grasps the concept of public interest.

The advantage of an inquiry sooner rather than later is that it could save us from Barr and effective appropriation of another $200 million to professional sport.

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