Conflict of interest debate heats up

The debate among Melbourne city councillors on conflict of interest reached new levels last month with accusations and counter-accusations flying.

Responding on May 17 to a motion from Cr Jackie Watts calling on councillors to refuse donations from the property, alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle called out Cr Watts’ own record.

Implying hypocrisy, Cr Doyle connected Cr Watts to the very industries she suggested councillors should avoid donations from.

“There is an old saying in the law:  If you are going to come to equity, come with clean hands,” Cr Doyle said.

“Cr Watts was funded in her election campaign by Gary Morgan or, more accurately, Roy Morgan Research.  A simple internet search shows you that Roy Morgan Research, Cr Watts’ principal financial backer, has a large number of clients in each of those industries.”

“On gambling, their website says: Our gambling research sets the industry standard for consumer participation via poker machines, casino tables, wagering, sports betting, lotteries, scratchies and online gambling.”

“To the tobacco and alcohol industry, their website says they are an ‘invaluable resource for your market review, strategic planning, advertising market campaign development and management reports.”

“A few examples of reports that Roy Morgan has produced:  Roll Your Own – Smokers’ Profile, Factory Made Cigarette Smokers’ Profile, Alcohol Currency Retail Report, Betters’ Profile, Club, Bar, Hotel, Poker Machine Players’ Profile.”

“I’ve heard Gary Morgan and his CEO personally pitch their services to property developers.”

Team Doyle councillors and Cr Ken Ong have excluded themselves from participation many times since the 2012 election after declaring a conflict arising from electoral donations. It has often resulted in loss of quorum. But Cr Doyle argues that this practice, in fact, prevents conflicted councillors from influencing voting outcomes.

“This all goes to conflict of interest,” he said. “I’m a little confused about how you can argue that donations influence you when, in fact, they actually exclude you from considerations and voting.  They do exactly the opposite, so I don’t get that argument.”

He said there had been a lot of scrutiny of donations made to his team and he wished that the team that Cr Watts was part of was similarly scrutinised.

“The Morgan/Elliot Team, which included Cr Watts, and Michael Kennedy, who submitted to us on this matter, all submitted completely different election campaign donation returns,” he said.

“Gary Morgan’s return shows that his company, (not him personally) donated $65, 588.  Cr Watts’ return notes a donation from Gary Morgan but doesn’t list his company in the correct way and differs from Gary Morgan’s description despite adding up to the same amount.”

“Michael Kennedy, who was on the same team, declared $500.  John Elliot declared he’d received nothing, despite him being the deputy lord mayoral candidate on that ticket.”

On Cr Watts’ motion, Cr Doyle said: “I can’t support such a confused, muddled approach when the statutory obligations weren’t even met by her own ticket.”

Cr Arron Wood said he was “riled” that the motion appeared to be directed against Team Doyle councillors.

“I see this as a waged campaign in an election year of constantly whacking the lord mayor and, indeed, Team Doyle,” Cr Wood said.

“It’s a vicious campaign that is constantly getting in the way of the real business of council.  Week in, week out we have to put up with this crap.”

Cr Ken Ong accused Cr Watts of “political posturing”. “We have so many of these useless notices of motion,” Cr Ong said.

Cr Watts responded: “Goodness me, what a performance.”

“I’m bringing this motion in good faith in response to concerns the community has about this unacceptable level of conflict that has occurred on this council.”

“All we can do is step up and show some integrity. You accuse me of posturing? I say look at yourselves,” she said.

“The hysteria with which this motion has been greeted is a concern in itself.”

“Let’s just stop the hysteria and vote shall we?”

The motion was lost with councillors Leppert, Oke, Foster and Watts voting for it and councillors Doyle, Louey, Ong, Pinder-Mortimer and Wood voting against it.

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