Anything to declare? That's a tough question

SCOUT’S HONOUR: Cr David Pahlke had to declare his boy scout involvement to rule out a conflict of interest.
SCOUT’S HONOUR: Cr David Pahlke had to declare his boy scout involvement to rule out a conflict of interest. File

WHEN is a conflict of interest not a conflict of interest?

The issue of whether outside influence could affect a politician's decision-making is as old as politics itself.

The potential for donations to influence a politician has most recently been brought into focus by allegations aimed at Ipswich's mayor.

Separate to that, the question of conflict of interest is one that in recent years has been faced more and more by Ipswich's city councillors.

More to the point, the councillors say they are being hamstrung by having to list trivial potential conflicts that threaten to limit their community involvement.

Under the Local Government Act, a councillor has a conflict of interest if their decisions are, or may be seen to be, influenced by their personal interests.

If a councillor fails to declare or appropriately deal with a conflict of interest, they may be guilty of misconduct.

The Act, which came into force in 2010, contains guidelines but with emphasis on accountability and transparency in decision-making.

But Ipswich councillors argue the Act goes too far, requiring them to divulge personal relationships, their religion, memberships of community groups and details of their spouses and children.

The Act was amended last year by the LNP Government but Ipswich councillors say, while they generally support the process, it is still unwieldy.

"The importance of accountability is paramount," Cr Paul Tully said.

"The thrust of the provisions - including the recent amendments - are such that if you've got any material personal interests, you've got to leave the meeting. If you've got a potential conflict of interest, it needs to be declared.

"I remember in the bad old days in some councils in Queensland, you could sit in a meeting and vote on a development for your own land. It was absolutely and utterly outrageous.

"It's just a laborious method of having to make the declaration for each councillor if you're a member of the show society, or have received some hospitality.

"You've got to declare shares and investments on the public register; conflicts of interest can arise at a council meeting but don't have to be declared on the public register.

"My view is, the government could amend it to provide that once it's declared on the public register - that's available on the internet - it doesn't have to be re-declared at a council meeting."

Cr David Pahlke is often a sparring partner of Cr Tully in council chambers but has a similar view on potential conflicts of interest.

"I totally agree with Paul but, in the last Labor Government, I had to declare that I was a boy scout 50 years ago because there was a report in a committee about boy scouts. How far do you go?," Cr Pahlke said.

"They've changed it a little since then. Now, the onus is on you as a councillor to make that decision.

"The way it was before, if a report came from a committee recommending giving $2000 to a Catholic church group, you had to declare if you were a Catholic.

"My issue is with the trivial end. I got a couple of free drinks and a ticket to a Jets football game seven years ago. Is that a conflict? A good example is the show society, going to their luncheon, and Ipswich Turf Club.

"What we need is clear guidelines and examples of what you can declare. I think the whole thing is a bit of a joke. It has to be tightened up and made more specific. Half the meetings are taken up with declarations."

Acting Local Government Minister Jarrod Bleijie said there were substantial changes to the Act in 2012 as a result of the Minister's listening tour.

"The provisions around a conflict of interest (COI) and a material personal interest (MPI) have been much simpler for councillors following the amendments," Mr Bleijie said.

"COI and MPI are popular topics in our training sessions for councillors. The department holds regular training sessions and we'd encourage all councillors to take part."

Topics:  conflict of interest ipswich city council

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