Six took wrong direction

IN May 2005, after a six-month inquiry into political donations, the Tweed Shire's councillors were sacked after a majority were found to have been backed by property developers. Since then, residents have been represented by a group of administrators appointed by the state %government in Sydney.

With local government elections less than a month away, those councillors that accepted the support of developers provided under the banner of a group known as Tweed Directions, still maintain their innocence.

They insist they played by the rules; declared their donations and did nothing illegal. No charges were ever laid and no-one was ever convicted of any wrongdoing. This is despite the recommendations of Commissioner Maurice Daly, an academic with more than 40 years experience in urban development, appointed by the government to head an inquiry into the Tweed Shire Council.

Professor Daly was scathing of the six Tweed Directions-backed councillors.

He found despite their claims of independence, the councillors were "imposters and puppets of Tweed Directions" who effectively represented a single team of candidates. He described their campaign and that of Tweed Directions as a "gross exercise in deceit of the electorate" which "corrupted both the democratic process and its transparency".

The inquiry found Tweed Directions had raised somewhere between $467,238 and $632,970 to support their cause of pro-development in the shire. Of this, 98.4 per cent came from the property industry -- 70 per cent of which came from donors based outside of the Tweed. This remains a huge sum in local government terms and was at least three times that of the $162,267 in total expenditure spent in 1999. By comparison the entire cost of the campaigns conducted by candidates in the neighbouring Byron Shire totalled $35,232 and $34,954 in Ballina.

According to Professor Daly, Tweed Directions remained a "shadowy commentator" and a "de-facto political organisation" which failed to announce itself or its purposes to the electorate. But this was refuted by the councillors in question. "Anybody on the Tweed would have had to have been pretty stupid not to have known that we were a pro-development team and we were being heavily supported by the property industry," said Bob Brinsmead, a councillor of some 12 years' standing. "It was well known. It wasn't some secret clandestine thing that was hidden in the cupboard." In its submission to the inquiry, Tweed Directions, which formed six months prior to the March 2004 poll, listed its raison d'etre as being to "promote business, growth and opportunity on the Tweed".

It was not the first time business had taken an interest in the Tweed Shire.

In 1999 a group of local businessmen raised more than $68,500 to support candidates in favour of development. This campaign led to the election of seven pro-development councillors, including Lynne Beck and Warren Polglase, who set about their agenda of encouraging development in the region. During this term, the developments of Salt and Casuarina went ahead, employment rose and the council's finances dramatically improved. But their exuberance for change was not matched by all councillors, nor all of the community, whose complaints eventually led to the NSW government calling the 2005 inquiry.

Commissioner Daly recommended all councillors -- even those not backed by Tweed Directions -- be sacked, after ruling they were hopelessly compromised. He also referred his concerns over political donations to the Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

No action was ever taken by these groups and none of Professor Daly's other recommendations, including a suggestion to reform donation disclosures, were adopted. Most of the councillors, including those not supported by Tweed Directions, were scathing of the inquiry, labelling it a political witch-hunt at worst and a waste of time at best. "The inquiry was a joke," said Henry James, a Greens councillor of almost 10 years.

"The way it was conducted was laughable; there were no revelations, he (Professor Daly) didn't uncover anything that wasn't already pretty well known by anyone who bothered to take an interest," Mr James said.

The report was later challenged in the NSW Supreme Court, with the judge ruling Professor Daly had overstepped his powers in making critical and "unfair" findings against solicitor Paul Brinsmead, the son of sacked councillor Bob Brinsmead.

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