Laws designed to restrict local government corruption were passed by the Queensland Parliament on 17 May 2018 in a move EDO (Environmental Defenders Office) Qld welcomes.
The passing of the Local Government (Councillor Complaints) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 (Councillor Complaints Bill) and the Local Government Electoral (Implementing Stage 1 of Belcarra) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 (Belcarra Bill) marks substantial reform in Queensland. The Bills, which came into effect 21 May 2018, bring in significant initiatives, including:
- the banning of donations from property developers to State and Local Government;
- introducing provisions for automatic suspension for councillors and mayors charged with a “disqualifying offence”; and
- strengthening and clarifying how councillors must deal with a real or perceived conflict of interest or a material personal interest;
- creating an improved transparency and integrity framework for local government authorities.
The ban on political donations has retrospective action, with (now unlawful) donations made on or after 12 October 2017 (the date of introduction of the 2017 Belcarra Bill) and before commencement of the new Bill, needing to be repaid to the donor within 30 days of Act’s commencement.
The Councillor Complaints Bill applies to all Queensland local government authorities except Brisbane City Council. The Bill establishes the Independent Assessor and the Office of the Independent Assessor to investigate and deal with allegations of inappropriate conduct or of councillors. The Office will additionally refer allegations of corruption to the Crime and Corruption Commission.
Amendments made to Bill
After lengthy debate in Parliament, the Bills passed with amendments including vesting powers in the Minister for Local Government to recommend that the Governor in Council suspend or dismiss the councillor or councillors if it is in the public interest. Additional amendments included an automatic legislative review after two years’ operation to be conducted in conjunction with the Local Government Association of Queensland.
Further actions needed to truly ensure decisions made in public interest and not for private profit
EDO Qld strongly advocated for the Bills’ introduction as a way of reducing corruption risk and improving transparency and accountability in local government, and we welcome them as a step in the right direction.
However, EDO Qld has also been advocating for further steps to be taken to ensure government decision making is truly in the public interest and incentives for corruption are reduced, such as:
- banning all corporate donations, including from mining companies, the tobacco industry etc, to prevent the loopholes provided by limiting the ban to one narrowly defined sector;
- a cap on expenditure by candidates and other parties for elections (Belcarra Report Recommendation 1) to end the constant hunt for donations to support election promotional work and for donors to find ways around the rules. This is in place in NSW currently;
- providing for a ‘betterment tax’ payable to the government where land zoning benefits a property developer, in order to reduce the incentive in existence to change zoning to benefit particular developers, and to compensate the community adequately in exchange for the windfall to the developer due to the change in planning regulation; and
- addressing the revolving door between industry and government, which can lead to inside relationships being used to the benefit of the private sector without due regard being given to the public interest. While Queensland has comparatively strong restrictions around when a senior public servant/Minister can work as a lobbyist, our framework could be further strengthened by:
- improving the definition of ‘lobbyist’, for example to include acting for even non-profit entities that represent private industry, such as the Queensland Resource Council; and
- better enforcing existing limitations on lobbyists moving between government and the private sector.