Publicising corruption allegations can be an important deterrent to inappropriate behaviour, but made incorrectly can ruin reputations. But the question of where to draw the line on how much should be disclosed — and when — is again the subject of strong debate as anti-corruption bodies try to balance the public interest against individual rights.
The potential for reputational damage means complainants acting in good faith is an important element of a trustworthy anti-corruption process, but it seems corruption allegations have been weaponised in Queensland local government elections.
The sunshine state’s Crime and Corruption Commission has now become concerned enough about local council candidates casting aspersions that it has recommended the state government consider making it an offence for any person to publicise allegations of corrupt conduct against another candidate during an election without first notifying the CCC and allowing at least three months to determine whether the allegations have merit.
Although the commission implores candidates at every election not to use it as a means to denigrate their opposition, “in this area in particular, CCC data indicates that a large number of allegations received by the CCC are baseless and merely designed to effect electoral damage on political opponents,” states the commission’s report on the question of publicising allegations, tabled Monday.
Very few allegations made against councillors are found to be substantiated, whether during election periods (6%) or at other times (8%). The commission’s report continues:
“This ‘blackout’ period does not mean that corrupt public officials will not be held to account. The CCC will continue to prioritise, in the public interest, the assessment and investigation of allegations against councillors, mayors and candidates. While there may be a delay while the allegation is investigated and progresses through the court, councillors and mayors who are convicted of a criminal offence may be removed from office.”
Corruption accusations fly before ballots
A review of CCC data found that complaints made to the CCC about local government increased during local government election periods. The CCC received significantly more local government corruption complaints per month during the three most recent elections (an average of 39 matters per month) than the equivalent months in non‐election years (an average of 29 matters per month). The increase in local government corruption complaints is driven by an increase in allegations against councillors and mayors, not allegations against local government employees.
Given the CCC “prioritises the assement of politically sensitive matters in the public interest, it is also of concern that significant CCC assessment resources are directed to baseless matters and diverted from other potentially more important matters,” the report argues.
“It is not in the public interest for the CCC to be manipulated in this manner.”
Eliminating smear campaigns
Not all submissions supported the idea of restrictions on publicising allegations.
Media organisations highlighted that the public have a right to know about allegations, and journalists should be able to report stories in the public interest without fear of prosecution.
Other submissions emphasised that transparency is an important check and balance on CCC discretion, and that publicising corruption allegations exposes and deters corruption.
CCC chair Alan MacSporran QC said there were competing views in the community and the four-person panel examining this matter carefully considered all viewpoints.
“Whilst we acknowledge the very important right to the freedom of speech and the need for open and accountable government, based on all the material examined by the CCC we are of the view limiting the publicising of allegations during local government election periods will allow this agency to complete its statutory functions, especially investigating corrupt conduct, in a more robust manner,” he said.
“Consideration was given to all options including not changing the current framework through to a total prohibition similar to other jurisdictions. However, based on the evidence and material considered, the CCC did not determine there was justification for any change except in the local government election context.”
The Local Government Association of Queensland “applauded” the recommendation, arguing it would “help eliminate smear campaigns and mud-slinging during election periods.”
The CCC received 82 submissions and conducted a two-day public forum in October where 22 people provided their views on the issue. It also reviewed the legislative frameworks of other jurisdictions, a range of legislation linked to the issue and analysed its own data during its examination.
The Queensland Parliament will now consider the CCC’s recommendation.
Image: the Gold Coast, adapted from a photo by Gaz on Wikimedia Commons.