The Camden IHAP is a vital planning panel that will decide on DA’s valued at $5m-$30m in our area.
One of the primary stated aims of these panels is to depoliticise the assessment process.
Ms Dewbery is a former Liberal councillor who served with the current Liberal councillors and is a current employee of Camden Liberal MP and State Government Whip Chris Patterson.
Following this vote, unless the Planning Minister knocks it back, Ms Dewbery will be the community representative on the Camden IHAP for South Ward and its many heritage precincts. In this role she will be paid $1000 per meeting, according to the Council's business papers.
On the IHAP website, it says: “Councillors, property developers and real estate agents will be ineligible to be panel members as this undermines the objective of having DAs determined by independent experts, depoliticising the assessment process” (my emphasis).
Debby Dewbery manages to qualify for selection because as a "former" councillor she is not among the excluded group. She also meets many of the criteria in terms of knowledge of the local area and public administration due to this background. But does her selection meet the spirit of those rules?
It is surprising, considering the strong candidates they had to choose from, that no alarm bells around a perceived conflict of interest went off in the minds of any of these people before our Liberal councillors and Cr Rob Mills voted Debby Dewbery through. If it did occur, there was certainly no indication of doubts by Liberal councillors during the meeting or in the business papers although clearly some ALP councillors and independent Eva Campbell did have concerns.
There is no doubt that Debby Dewbery’s selection to the panel strictly meets the IHAP rules as spelt out on the homepage but it is certainly arguable that her likely appointment is not in the spirit of these regulations. These regulations demand not just independence from politics but the perception of independence with the explicit aim of depoliticising the approval process.
Choosing someone with such strong political links back to an active State Government MP overlooks possible public perception around her clear political ties to the Liberal party and potentially undermines the squeaky clean reputation the IHAPs are hoping to put forward.
One of the key points in managing conflicts of interest on an IHAP is highlighted in its Draft Code of Conduct – and it applies more broadly too, I would imagine, to appointments. It reads: (Part 4, page 9) “When considering whether or not a conflict of interests exists, panel members should consider how others would view their situation.”
Now, I need to be clear here, I do not think our councillors or local MP Chris Patterson are corrupt, but there is no doubt that as Debby Dewbery's employer Mr Patterson could “potentially” exert pressure on her to vote in a certain way on the panel if he chose. After all, he controls whether or not she has a job.
There is also the often-expressed idea by those interested in politics that members of parties vote along party lines first and for the voters second. Having interviewed and known personally many politicians over the years, I know that many set out with high ideals but those ideals become harder to maintain with party politics.
At the end of the day, a decision about whether or not to appoint Ms Dewbery to this position should give strong consideration to “public perception” around undue political influence and the potential for corruption. Whether corrupt conduct actually occurs is not the point, it's whether there is a possibility that voters may perceive it this way. Sadly, as most people don’t think very highly of politicians, the general public may suspect corruption where there is none at all.
This perception of a politicised IHAP is likely to become more acute when Liberal councillors vote for a close former Liberal colleague who works for the local Liberal MP and Government whip. This view may not be correct, but it is an understandable perception.
I imagine the Camden councillors who supported this appointment, Debby Dewbery herself, and Chris Patterson felt they were doing the right thing by the community as Ms Dewbery does, after all, have the expertise.
But, the larger issue of a perception of a conflict of interest and the perceived independence of the panels should have been given more consideration before this decision was made. In my view, it is a mistake that could easily turn into a media firestorm that could put these new panels under intense scrutiny before they even start.
I’m not sure the politicians in Macquarie Street would appreciate a scandalous start to the new assessment process just as they are putting it into action but with this appointment such an outcome becomes a distinct possibility.