New South Wales state officials helped a business lobby group to write a newspaper opinion piece in support of controversial planning proposals.
Patricia Forsythe, the executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber, was given a briefing by planning officials to prepare an opinion piece she wrote for Fairfax in November 2013 praising measures to speed up building approvals, according to emails released under a call for papers from the NSW parliament.
The Planning Department’s acting corporate communications manager, Laurel-Lee Roderick, wrote an email to other officials that said the talking points had been prepared for Forsythe “who has indicated she will write an op-ed in support of the planning bill”.
“While the info is taken from existing approved words, can you please have a quick look over it,” she said. “She will write her own messaging but is just after the key facts.”
The NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge said the emails raised serious concerns about the independence of public servants by providing a private entity with talking points to write in support of a government bill.
“What we have seen here is a politically well-connected lobbyist being embraced by, and briefed by, public servants so she can get out and sell a divisive government policy. That’s a clear breach of trust with the public,” he said.
“It is not just the public service that has lost its independence, it is also the business chamber, which these documents show to be the government’s willing accomplice.”
The Sydney Business Chamber, a division of the NSW Business Chamber, says on its website its focus is to “develop and promote the major issues that contribute to economic activity and growth in the city and to reduce the barriers that threaten our global competitiveness”.
Forsythe is a former Liberal party MLC in NSW, and the NSW Business Chamber donated more than $30,000 to the Liberals through the Millennium Forum between 2009 and 2010.
A spokesman for the chamber said: “The NSW Business Chamber, including its subsidiary the Sydney Business Chamber, is not a current donor to the Liberal party, or any political party for that matter. We have, in past years, attended events run by both major political parties, but that process ceased well over a year ago.”
“The NSW Business Chamber and the Sydney Business Chamber are regularly asked by newspapers to write op-ed pieces on a variety of subjects, and we also submit unrequested op-eds from time to time. Some of these are published, and some of these are not. Before being submitted, it is common practice to fact-check our information with relevant sources to ensure the figures we are quoting are the most up to date.”
The spokesman said the group was a “fiercely apolitical organisation” that met regularly with politicians across all parties, and had long argued for planning reforms.
A spokesman for the Planning Department said: “It is entirely appropriate to provide information to stakeholders who make a request regarding policy initiatives.”
“There is nothing unusual about any organisation working with their stakeholders to promote policy that is in the public interest.”
Two lines from the opinion piece have been copied almost directly from the release provided by the department.
“Over the past two decades, NSW housing approvals fell by 23%, while in other states it increased by the same amount,” Forsythe wrote.
The talking points said: “housing completions in the rest of Australia increased by 23% (1985-2012) – compared with a fall of 23% in NSW.”
Forsythe wrote: “Over the past five years, NSW provided 40% fewer new dwellings compared with Victoria, despite our populations growing at similar rates. This has increased the cost of living and doing business in NSW.”
The talking points said: “Over the past five years, NSW has completed 40% less dwellings than Victoria, despite comparable population growth.”