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Take a shower local government; you stink

The Queensland government has agreed to the Crime and Corruption Commission’s 31 recommendations to carry out what will be “the most substantial reform of the local government sector in Queensland’s history” in the view of CCC chair Alan MacSporran. There’s a pong about the sector, he says, and it’s hung in the air for decades.

Last Wednesday, the CCC published its Operation Belcarra report recommending the sweeping series of changes to council electoral rules to reduce the risk of corruption through donations, especially from property developers.

The watchdog investigated multiple complaints about candidates in various localities including the Gold Coast, Ipswich, Moreton Bay and Logan, finding widespread breaches of legal obligations, mostly related to political donations. After its investigations that included nine days of public hearings, the CCC decided these were “largely caused by a deficient legislative and regulatory framework” that also compromised the operations of the Electoral Commission Queensland.

It summarised the actions in its “blueprint for integrity” as:

  • Consider the introduction of campaign expenditure caps.
  • Introduce real-time disclosure of electoral expenditure.
  • Make all candidates’ interests, including party political membership, known to voters before polling day.
  • More clearly define what is meant by a “group” of candidates.
  • Ensure all donations are known to voters before polling day.
  • Make more information about donors and donations available to the public.
  • Prohibit donations from property developers to local government councillors and candidates.
  • Improve compliance by candidates and donors with disclosure obligations.
  • Improve candidates’ management of campaign funds.
  • Improve how councillors identify and manage conflicts of interest.
  • Strengthen regulatory responses to non-compliance.

This was followed swiftly by a response from Local Government Association of Queensland president and Sunshine Coast mayor, Mark Jamieson, supporting all but two recommendations and arguing local governments were generally “more proactive in giving practical effect to the principles of transparency and openness” than their state or federal counterparts.

MacSporran had a different view. Releasing the report, he said the local government sector was “on the nose” and people who believed “there must be something wrong here, and that’s why it’s sought to be covered up” were right.

“It certainly is at the very least a hotbed of perceived corruption and that occurs when you have a lack of transparency,” he said in a press conference.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk tabled the government’s responses to each recommendation on Tuesday — nine are supported “in principle” but none are rejected — and followed up yesterday with an amendment bill to give effect to the reforms.

She agreed with the CCC chair’s assessment of the persistent stench around the sector and reiterated that “many of these issues are not new” and had been investigated by the former Criminal Justice Commission 26 years ago. “But those issues have persisted and the smell remains,” said Palaszczuk.

Key measure opposed by local government

The LGAQ president rejected a ban on donations from developers, arguing it was discriminatory and would lead to politicians accepting the money in more furtive ways. Jamieson said a ban failed in New South Wales, referring to “the channelling of funds to the NSW Liberal Party’s 2011 state election campaign with the intention of evading the ban” uncovered by the NSW anti-corruption body.

The Premier, however, strongly supports a ban that extends to candidates for state Parliament as well, and said her  Labor colleagues had voluntarily stopped accepting donations from property developers ahead of the legislation going through. And she agrees with the CCC that other kinds of donors do not pose the same risk of actual or perceived corruption as property developers.

Jamieson also rejects the proposal that councillors should be able to decide if one of their fellow members has a conflict and should be excluded from a decision or vote, instead of individual councillors deciding for themselves. The Sunshine Coast mayor said some had used this power to “gang up on their political opponents” in the past, leading the Bligh government to remove it in 2011. “But we are not against measures to increase transparency and accountability: far from it,” he adds.

As she introduced the amendments bill yesterday, Palaszczuk said she still had confidence in the state’s local government system.

“Let me make this clear, Queensland is home to some of the most innovative and successful local governments in the nation,” she said.

“Councils are led by mayors and councillors who are passionate and committed to serving their communities. I know the majority of local government elected representatives are doing exceptional work; work in the best interests of their council and community, and I want to acknowledge their efforts.”

The bill includes a provision for the state to recover up to twice the amount or value of the donation when a candidate is caught accepting one.

Councillors who declare a conflict of interest or a material personal interest in a matter will have to provide more details to the public than in the past. If they suspect another councillor has an undeclared conflict or personal interest, they will be obligated to report their suspicions and penalties are much higher.

The CCC is still investigating “a number of matters” relating to dodgy councillors but decided not to pursue criminal prosecutions “where it identified the current framework may have contributed to the non-compliance or where the time period for a prosecution has expired.”

A few local government politicians are facing prosecution as a result of the CCC’s work, like Gold Coast mayoral candidate Penny Toland, who allegedly failed to declare over $38,000 worth of t-shirts and advertising donated by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

Former Ipswich mayor Paul Pisasale is perhaps its most high-profile scalp. He now faces a total of 11 criminal charges as a result of the CCC’s investigations after six more were added this week, including allegations that he received corrupt payments from a property developer and committed perjury in one of the agency’s investigative hearings, along with two counts of fraud and one related to drug possession.

Pisasale survived investigations by the watchdog in the past but resigned in June citing ill health, after being stopped at Melbourne airport carrying $50,000 in cash. The earlier charges against him included extortion and perverting the course of justice.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.