Local Government Association of Queensland CEO Greg Hallam. File picture
Local Government Association of Queensland CEO Greg Hallam. File picture

Restoring confidence in councils: A 10-point plan

QUEENSLAND Councils are united in their mission to restore confidence in the integrity of the electoral donations system and council decision making - especially around town planning decisions.

That is why the LGAQ's governance body, the 16-member Policy Executive, has adopted a radical and far-reaching set of policy initiatives entitled Beyond Belcarra.

These recommendations are the result of month-long, in-depth discussions with the LGAQ's 77 member councils.

The 10-point plan sets a strong benchmark to restore trust in the system.

During deliberations, the LGAQ Policy Executive considered both perception of electoral and political donation irregularities, and the reality of how both the electoral and statutory planning systems work.

There are 579 elected members in local government, and just three, or 0.2 per cent of the total, have been charged with criminal offences. Two of these members have already forfeited office. In the case of former mayor of Fraser Coast, Chris Loft, the matters for which he was charged were not related to the CCC Belcarra Inquiry matters.

Meanwhile, a recent survey of the 30 largest councils in Queensland has deflected the commonly held view that elected members meddle in planning matters.

The survey revealed between only half of 1 per cent and 2 per cent of all developmental applications are dealt with by elected members. The majority are handled under delegation by council planning officers.

Even more telling, of the small fraction of planning decisions made by elected members around the council tables, 90 per cent of decisions go against the developer and for the community.

It is also prudent to point out, less than 10 per cent of candidates for council elections receive gifts or donations.

So, the challenge in fashioning a better, stronger set of rules was to focus on what was real, and not indulge in tokenistic gestures to assuage public sentiment. Populist panaceas won't fix real problems, indeed they make things worse.

The LGAQ's 10-point Beyond Belcarra plan goes to the heart of matters, limiting campaign funding at $2 per voter for a mayor, and $1 a councillor, capped at $200,000 and $50,000 respectively.

In other words, you can't buy an election.

Second, we say all candidates, not just sitting councillors, must publish an online Register of Interests as a prerequisite to the Queensland Electoral Commission accepting their nomination to run for council.

In other words, you know who you are really voting for when you head to the ballot box.

Third, we also say the legislation should specifically state the donations and gifts register for mayors and councillors apply to both current, and previous term, incumbents.

The absolute bell ringer is the proposal that any elected member who has received a gift or donation over $500 in value must leave council chambers and play no part in the debate.

That goes well beyond the Belcarra Report recommendations of requiring the elected member to declare a conflict of interest, but stay in the room.

The LGAQ's suite of integrity enhanced measures are rounded out by the need for greater transparency.

This will be achieved through regular online reporting of planning decisions and trends, community education on the nature of the planning legislation and systems in Queensland, and mandatory briefing sessions for all first-time candidates.

If the Queensland Government adopts this tough package of LGAQ mandated reforms, the state will have gone a long way to fixing real problems in the system, while also putting a sword to often misplaced perceptions.

 

Greg Hallam is the CEO of the Local Government Association of Queensland



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