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A Response to Belcarra

This is an op-ed piece that is currently running in the Courier Mail. 

By LGAQ President and Sunshine Coast Mayor Mark Jamieson.

No other level of government has been more proactive in giving practical effect to the principles of transparency and openness than local councils in Queensland.

We believe there is one golden rule to observe when it comes to the conduct of candidates at local government elections and the behaviour of councillors once elected by their communities: transparency is paramount.

Councils reflect the values and aspirations of their communities. They are leaders in open and transparent government, not followers. They value scrutiny and understand the obligation to be accountable to their communities.

This staunch support for increased transparency in local government elections is the attitude that the LGAQ has taken throughout the Crime and Corruption Commission’s very thorough and, we believe, necessary Operation Belcarra investigation.

The LGAQ also supported the Government’s decision to introduce real time disclosure of electoral donations as an important step towards increased openness and transparency.

We welcome the CCC report and look forward to working with the State Government to ensure most of the recommendations are adopted.

However, there are two proposals from the commission that we cannot support: a ban on campaign donations from property developers and a return to empowering councils to exclude councillors with a conflict of interest from council meetings.

Banning donations from categories or classes of donors such as property developers, unions and so on is discriminatory and carries the potential for people to try and get around the system. Prohibition rarely works because it drives activity underground.

We believe regulation and transparency is the answer, not prohibition.

Developer donation bans in New South Wales, the only state in Australia with such bans, including for local government elections, have been a proven failure.

A 2016 ICAC investigation exposed the channelling of funds to the NSW Liberal Party’s 2011 state election campaign with the intention of evading the ban on donations from property developers.

Another issue that has proven difficult to nail down is the definition of a property developer. Given this is such a grey area, I believe the State Government would need to make that decision.

While property developers in NSW are banned from donating to council candidates, they can run as candidates themselves provided they disclose the fact that they are, in fact, developers or close associates of developers.

There have been instances where people denied being developers on their nomination forms for council election despite regularly lodging development applications. One councillor was found to have denied being a developer even though he had lodged development applications with various Sydney councils for 150 homes over the previous three years.   

The previous Bligh Labor government amended the Local Government Act in 2011 to remove the power of councils to force councillors with a conflict of interest to leave council meetings because it was open to abuse, with some councillors using it to gang up on their political opponents.

But we are not against measures to increase transparency and accountability: far from it.

Earlier this year, the LGAQ called on the Government to make candidates publish a register of interests at the time they nominate for election, which would give electors a better idea of the person who was wanting their vote.

We welcome the fact that this proposal has been picked up by the CCC.

In light of the issues canvassed during Operation Belcarra, the LGAQ wrote to the Government last month proposing a system of campaign spending caps for local government elections as another step towards ensuring transparency and accountability in the local government sector.

Under the LGAQ proposal, an expenditure cap of $2 per voter for mayoral candidates and $1 per voter for council candidates would apply. The proposed rules would also prevent mayoral candidates from spending more than $200,000 and council candidates from spending more than $50,000 on their campaigns.

The LGAQ believes this would help prevent corruption and undue influence as it would deal with the demand for campaign funds that drives fund-raising practices.

Such a system would also reduce or contain the costs of elections, which would make them more competitive and fairer to all who want to run for their local council.

As I have said, we look forward to working with the State Government on these issues and are heartened by the Premier’s indication that any donation ban would apply to both state and local elections.



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