Conflict of interest laws vs democracy

One of the West’s great cultural and political achievements is the idea of an ‘office’, the idea that certain roles should be performed in the interests of persons other than the person who fills that role at a particular time. While tribal cultures see little or nothing wrong with their leaders handing out ‘public’ privileges to their friends, relatives and cronies, in the West this is now seen as a ‘conflict of interest’, if not corrupt.

But in many cases the line between personal and public interest in a matter is far from clear. The Age this morning reports on legislation before the Victorian Parliament that in my view redefines legitimate political interests in the outcome of issues as personal interests. In the future, local councillors may be prevented from voting on the very motions before council they may have been elected to support or oppose.

For example, they will be held to have become an ‘interested party’ if they have lodged an appeal in relation to a council decision, or have made an objection or submission. Say the Council wants to cut down the trees in your street, or redirect its traffic, or let someone build a house that overshadows your garden. You go through the normal processes to protect your interests, by making an objection. This fails.

So you run for election on one of these issues, win a mandate to act on them, and then because of your earlier steps to protect your interests you cannot vote on the matter. Not only are you deprived of your right to vote, but the democratic will of the people who supported you is also frustrated.
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