By Royce Miller, originally published by The Age on 13 November.

Twelve years ago then Victorian Labor premier John Brumby pronounced that political donations were “a sign of a healthy democracy”.

The pronouncement came as a “third way” style Victorian Labor government cuddled up to business while insisting that political patronage did not equal compromise.

A few years earlier, Labor had even established a specific forum where business, lobbyists and ministers could mingle at often intimate lunches and cocktail functions, known as Progressive Business, which then fed hundreds of thousands in donations back to the ALP machine.

The Liberal Party had its own long-established connections to business but it followed Labor’s lead and established similar bodies like active fundraising body Enterprise Victoria.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of such hobnobbing was John Woodman, the flamboyant, Ferrari-driving planner-developer who specialised in winning unlikely planning approvals to carve up farmland in the city’s sprawling south-east and turn it into residential lots.

Twelve years on from Mr Brumby’s pronouncement, the state’s anti-corruption watchdog’s investigation of the Casey land scandal is exposing in the most glaring of ways why donations and the blurring of commercial and political interests are anything but good for democracy.

While the Andrews government introduced tough new donations restrictions in 2018, IBAC and others are clearly of the view that much more needs to be done about political money, transparency and accountability at all three levels of government.

Through phone taps, coercive access to emails and other documents and public interrogations, IBAC’s probe of the Casey saga has provided a rare public insight into what IBAC counsel assisting Michael Tovey, QC, describes as the “under-the-table” dealings between politicians and their patrons.

The IBAC inquiry is probing Mr Woodman’s manipulation of the planning system, including alleged bribes paid to councillors and donations to MPs as he pushed for the rezoning of land in Cranbourne West. The rezoning would have been worth as much as $150 million to developers and lobbyists had it not been derailed by an investigation by The Sunday Age in 2018.

Through this week IBAC grilled veteran Labor-linked Phil Staindl, a veteran lobbyist and key part of Mr Woodman’s team.

The Casey scandal highlights two levels of compromise of public officials. First there are a raw $1.2 million in alleged personal bribes to two Casey councillors, Liberal-linked former mayors Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett, including through cash-filled suitcases.

The other is the more vexed: perfectly legal donations, and the access they provide. IBAC has heard how Mr Woodman and his team carefully targeted local MPs and candidates from both Labor and Liberal parties in the area around proposed rezoning, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into their electoral campaigns.

The developer came to regard both present and past state Labor MPs as part of his team, who could advocate to, and negotiate with, the government on his behalf. In questioning this week counsel assisting IBAC Michael Tovey QC observed how one recipient of donations, Narre Warren South MP Judith Graley, appeared to be a “channel into the (planning) minister’s office” for Woodman.

There was an expectation that on the matter of the rezoning Ms Graley, “will simply do what you ask,” he put to Mr Staindl, who did not agree.

Citing a 2015 High Court case, commissioner Robert Redlich QC this week described donations as a “subtle kind of corruption”. “The danger,” he said, was that “officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder”.

It’s corruption described as “clientelism”, commissioner Redlich told the hearing. And the Casey saga is full of it.

Such relationships are also at risk of morphing into something even more troubling, the inquiry heard. So cosy had become Mr Woodman’s relationship with Ms Graley that, while she was still in parliament and advocating on his behalf to the minister’s office, Mr Woodman had offered her a job when she retired from Parliament at the 2018 poll. The job never eventuated.

“The impression you get from that is this smacks very much of a bribe,” Mr Tovey said. Mr Staindl did not agree.

Ms Graley is expected to give evidence to the IBAC inquiry in coming weeks.

Much of the action revealed through the IBAC inquiry took place before Labor’s introduction of tough restrictions on donations. Nonetheless, Mr Redlich noted that “patronage” continues. Further evidence was coming about this, he said.

Despite the donations bans integrity experts have raised ongoing concerns about transparency and accountability in MPs dealings with business and lobbyists.

Leading integrity expert Melbourne Law School’s Professor Joo-Cheong Tham, said the Casey probe has been especially disturbing because of the “normalisation” of the kinds of relationships highlighted by IBAC.

In Victoria there is a lack of transparency around meetings held between Ministers and their staff with business figures and details of such meetings need to be publicly recorded, including through the disclosure of ministerial diaries, as is now required in Queensland and New South Wales, he says.

“We need a statutory scheme set up with a dedicated independent agency responsible for its enforcement,” says Professor Tham.

While IBAC’s focus has been on local and state level politics, it seems likely it will extend its probe into the federal sphere. After all, Mr Woodman’ has donated generously to senior federal figures over many years, including current senior figures.

There are currently no restrictions on the size of donations at the local council level in Victoria or at the federal level.

Kos Samaras knows a lot about such issues. A long time ALP operative and Victorian Labor assistant secretary who he has recently become a lobbyist for both corporates and non-profits.

He supports a ban on large donations at all levels of government and greater transparency around ministers and their dealings with business and lobbyists.

“The real role of a lobbyist now should be to deliver outcomes that clients can live with but have real benefits for the community and government and not the other way around.”