The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) has tabled a special report in Parliament that exposes corruption vulnerabilities in Victoria’s planning decision-making processes at both state and local government levels.
IBAC’s Operation Sandon investigated allegations of corrupt conduct involving councillors and property developers in the City of Casey (Casey Council) in Melbourne’s South-East.
It examined whether any councillors accepted payments, gifts, or other benefits, including political donations, in exchange for supporting council decisions on planning matters that favoured the interests of developer and property consultant John Woodman and his clients.
IBAC found clear evidence of two Councillors accepting personal benefits from making or influencing council decisions related to planning or land use. Operation Sandon also demonstrated that, as a group, councillors in Casey Council exhibited and tolerated behaviour that did not meet the standards required of them.
IBAC’s investigation was primarily concerned with four planning matters involving John Woodman and his associates. Each matter involved Casey Council as the decision maker, and two required the planning minister’s approval. IBAC examined the conduct of public officers and elected officials from state and local governments.
IBAC found that councillors Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett promoted John Woodman’s and his clients’ interests on council in exchange for payment and in-kind support. Both councillors failed to declare conflicts of interest in relation to their involvement with John Woodman or his companies on many occasions.
IBAC did not find that other councillors received a direct benefit in exchange for promoting John Woodman’s or his clients’ interests on council.
IBAC Acting Commissioner Stephen Farrow said planning decisions have an impact on the liveability of all Victorians, so it is vital that such decisions be protected from improper influence and corruption.
“We found that safeguards around deciding whether to amend a planning scheme were bypassed,” Acting Commissioner Farrow said.
“The planning amendments we looked at as part of this operation reached the desks of decision makers in local and state government, without strategic reasons for their implementation.”
“The investigation demonstrated how ministers, members of parliament, councillors, ministerial advisers and electorate officers may be targeted by lobbyists, and how limitations in the current regulation of lobbyists present corruption vulnerabilities.”
As a result of Operation Sandon, IBAC has made 34 recommendations to promote transparency in planning decisions; enhance donation and lobbying regulation; improve the accountability of ministerial advisers and electorate officers and strengthen council governance.
In 2020, the entire Casey Council was sacked by the Victorian Government, in part due to IBAC’s investigation. The next scheduled opportunity for residents to elect their local government representatives in that municipality is in 2024.
The report and findings can be found here.