The torch with a powerful battery. A standard piece of equipment in a Greens toolkit.
People around the country would like to be sure that public assets of all kinds are used wisely and well, and that public money is spent where it is needed and for public benefit. Recent events have shown that we can have no confidence as far as the NSW government is concerned. The Public Accountability Committee of the NSW Parliament shone a light and revealed scandalous pork-barrelling.
Surely our own Blacktown Council is different? Nothing murky there…
Your Greens team has no allegations whatever to make about the integrity of Council’s financial decision-making. However, there are two areas in which we see scope for improvement:
Accessibility of information about councillors’ personal interests;
The commitment of resources only to sound projects that genuinely meet the needs of Blacktown residents.
Please may I view the register of conflicts of interest?
Head to the website of the Cumberland City Council, and within less than two minutes you will be able to find and download PDFs containing lightly redacted scans of the original forms on which the councillors, council staff and council committee members disclosed their financial interests for the previous financial year. Here’s the link: https://www.cumberland.nsw.gov.au/disclosures-councillors-and-designated-persons-returns .The PDFs are easy to find from the homepage of the “Access to Information” section of the website.
Now head to the “Access to Our Information” section of the Blacktown City Council website, then the “Open Access Information” page, and what do you see? A mere downloadable list of the people who have submitted such disclosures. There is a statement that the documents “can be accessed by completing our Informal application to access information.”
As one of our members describes the process, “Currently you need to fill out a form and send it to Council, wait for a reply and follow up questions about use and why you would like to access the document and wait again for the document to be sent to you.” And yet the relevant guideline from the Information and Privacy Commission NSW states that “The returns should be made publicly available on the council’s website free of charge unless there is an overriding public interest against disclosure or to do so would impose unreasonable additional costs on the council.”
OK, Blacktown Council, what is the “overriding public interest against” residents being able to find out in less than five minutes what sources of income any given councillor has had in the previous financial year, what business corporations he/she had a stake in, what gifts and travel expenses he/she received, and other information of that kind?
Magnet or white elephant?
Blacktown’s present Labor-dominated Council takes pride in “transformational projects” such as the new ACU university campus, the Western Sydney Animal Rehoming Centre, the International Centre of Training Excellence and the Blacktown Brain and Spinal Institute (BBSI).
BBSI is clearly intended to put Blacktown on the map. As the Council website puts it, “BBSI will be a world leader in medical research, practice, treatment and recovery. National and international surgeons will carry out research and treat patients at BBSI. For that reason, patients will travel from all over the world to Blacktown for medical care.” Bigger than Westpoint, bigger than Blacktown Hospital, BBSI will replace the Blacktown Council building, the adjacent arts centre, and part of the nearby car park with a futuristic site containing a research institute, a private hospital, a “medi-hotel,” some shops and some apartments.
If the project is successful, the BBSI will attract patients in large numbers from around the world. Along with their accompanying family members, these medical tourists will pour a lot of money into our economy. Hundreds of jobs and subcontracting opportunities will be created during the construction phase, after which local residents who are healthcare professionals will have an improved chance of finding work in Blacktown rather than having to commute into the city or beyond. The whole configuration of the Blacktown CBD will change, with potential for extensive medical precincts, and a brand new Council building and arts centre in the Warwick Lane development. The sale of Council land to serve as the site for the BBSI will go a long way towards paying for the new Council building.
Council knew that there were some risks involved with this project and built some safeguards into the deal. However, it was surely not expecting that in August of this year the “global neurosurgeon” who is behind the BBSI project would undergo an embarrassing and serious professional setback, as media statements available from the Medical Council of New South Wales website (https://www.mcnsw.org.au/media-statements) make clear. What impact this blow to his reputation will have on the future of the BBSI project is unclear. However, Council has approved the project and signed off on the deal. The consequences for ratepayers if the project fails could be major.
Where do the Greens come in?
Because the Greens were not involved in the Blacktown Council–BBSI deal in any way, we are free to point the torch of critical inquiry, with questions such as:
“How come so much is riding on the reputation and ambitions of one neurosurgeon, and what does this deal say about the ‘strong economic management’ on which the Labor ticket claims to be campaigning?”
Because we have strong social-justice principles, we are motivated to ask public-interest questions such as:
“How come a precious public asset—all that prime land in Flushcombe Rd—is to be sold to private interests, sacrificed to build an elite medical facility that will be out of reach for local people?”
And, of course, if Len is elected to Council, he will push for Blacktown councillors’ declarations of their personal interests to be as quickly accessible as the Cumberland ones are.