‘Only the wealthy can run for council now’
ONLY wealthy individuals or union-backed candidates will be able to afford to run for Gold Coast council elections after a massive reform package was passed yesterday by State Parliament.
Southport LNP MP and former city councillor Rob Molhoek described the new laws, which ban property developer donations, as "bashing" the Coast and its developers.
But the Palaszczuk Government believes the reforms will renew confidence for ratepayers with councils being investigated by the Crime and Corruption Commission and kill off the "white shoe brigade".
The new rules are backed by tough penalties, with anyone found attempting to get around them facing up to ten years behind bars.
Mr Molhoek accused the government of being on a "witch-hunt" and the bills as an "absolute disgrace" after they were rushed through late yesterday.
"Frankly, I am fed up with the bashing that the Gold Coast and some developers received," he said.
Election return disclosures show both political parties are backed by developers and have built up multimillion-dollar political campaign war chests.
The reforms will be devastating for the LNP as the bulk of Labor's backing is from unions.
Mr Molhoek told the Parliament: "The concern I have heard from people down the Gold Coast in the last few weeks is that the only people who are going to be able to afford to run in council elections across the state, particularly for mayor, will either be union backed candidates like Penny Toland where the unions truck money in - or people who are independently wealthy like Tom Tate.
"I am very concerned about this, because the cautious side of me wonders if this is not some conspiracy by the union movement to control our cabinet and decide who sits in the cabinet room and who our Premier is.
"Are they going to start funding mayors across the state so they can control all of the councils across the state as well?"
CCC investigators after the 2016 council election were told candidates who run for mayor on the Coast need a "bucket of money" to win.
The CCC in its report released in October last year found "wealthy self-funded candidates" and those with union and political party backing had an unfair advantage.
Mayor Tom Tate, who appeared at the public hearings, said he had spent more than $182,000 of his own money on his 2016 campaign.
The Gold Coast Bulletin in up to 60 reports after the 2016 poll in the Trojan Council series exposed an LNP bloc which gave some candidates with party membership an advantage over self-funded independents.
After mayoral candidate Penny Toland was accused of perjury in November last year - a charge she intends to fight - the LNP put the spotlight on union involvement and $40,000 put into her account.
Mr Molhoek defended the council as the CCC launches an investigation into potential conflict of interests in its dealings with Black Swan Lake, the Bruce Bishop car park and major developments.
"I suspect that this latest witch-hunt - this new set of rules, these new transparent standards that those on the other side of the House want to keep spruiking - will again find no wrongdoing," he told Parliament.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Mr Molhoek had a right to an opinion but she defended the laws which gave ministers more power.
"The show cause process that currently exists to allow removal of a councillor is very limited," she said.
The poor conduct of a council was often so frequent that a Minister had to intervene to restore the confidence of the community, the Premier added.
"Everyone in Queensland must feel disappointed and dismayed at the allegations that continue to surface about councils and councillors. I am concerned that we have not yet seen the end of this," she said.
The Government had announced $7.4 million would be allocated to the CCC over four years "to ensure they have the resources to deal with whatever they uncover".
Burleigh MP Michael Hart, who objected to the debate on the laws being shortened, raised concerns about extra powers being given to the Minister.
"As everybody in the House knows, I come from the Gold Coast and we do have our issues there. There have been rumours about what has been happening with the council there," he said.
"I have some very good friends on the Gold Coast City Council and I am sure that they have been doing the right thing. There will be a proper inquiry, so we will wait and see.'
WHAT THE CHANGES MEAN
Q: What are the two new laws concerning local government donations?
A: One relates to conflict of interest and councillors facing jail terms if they fail to make proper declarations. The other is about donations and banning property developers.
Q: How did these two new laws covering councils get introduced?
A: They are a response from the Labor State Government to the Crime and Corruption Commission's report on Operation Belcarra.
Q: What was Operation Belcarra and how did that get started?
A: After the 2016 council election, the Bulletin documented 60 articles detailing how independent candidates received direct LNP funding. Others had party strategists offering advice, fellow members would doorknock and drop letters.
Q: What was the biggest example of that?
A: Felicity Stevenson in Division Five and Krystyn Boulton in Division Four each received $30,000 each from the Fadden Forum operated by their former boss, Coast federal MP Stuart Robert.
Q: What about union donations?
A: Mayoral candidate Penny Toland gave evidence at a CCC hearing where she did not believe she had to declare almost $40,000 in funding from unions because she did not approve it. She was later charged with perjury but intends to fight the charges.
Q: What was the response by the government to all of this?
A: The government supported all 31 recommendations. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced real-time donation rules for both state and local governments. The new laws related to several of the recommendations.
Q: What did the CCC conclude in its report specific to the Gold Coast?
A: That candidates who run for mayor need a "bucket of money" to win. It found "wealthy self-funded candidates" and those with union and political party backing had an unfair advantage.
Q: What was it concerned about after its investigation?
A: That expenditure caps should apply to candidates, third parties, political parties and unions.
Q: What is the aim of the current Belcarra bills?
A: To minimise corruption risks by banning property developers from giving donations, improve transparency and accountability of candidates, strengthen laws on how councillors deal with conflict of interests.
Q: Why weren't unions banned from donations?
A: CCC chair Alan MacSporran, QC, said: "The unions have been forever, as you know, public supporters of the Labor Party openly. Their funds are routinely disclosed. We found, as part of our investigation, no evidence that they were improperly influencing the process. What they did was transparent, part of the democratic process and not potentially corrupt in the sense that we are talking about, as opposed to the perception that is routinely recognised from developers in that same sector over a long period of time."
Q: Mr MacSporran was asked about the CFMEU, that it was powerful on the industrial scene, strong in the building industry on the Gold Coast, and why would it not too be banned like developers from making donations?
A: The inquiry found no evidence of union donations being given for corrupt purposes. Rather the union supported candidates with similar policies. In terms of banning particular unions, the reforms recommended had to be able to survive any legal challenge in the High Court.
HOW THE LAWS WILL CHANGE THE COALFACE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT
* A prohibited donor includes a property developer and any industry representative organisation whose members are property developers.
* The ban extends to businesses which make planning applications and their close associates, including related corporations, directors and their spouses.
* A donation includes direct or indirect gifts, or loans to a councillor or candidate.
* New penalties apply to anyone who tries to get around the ban. They face up to 10 years jail.
* Key changes include how councillors at a meeting declare a conflict of interest.
* other councillors may decide a councillor should leave the meeting and colleagues will vote, forcing the councillor to stand outside the chamber.
* In terms of declaring donors, the councillor must give the name, nature of the relationship, value and date of the receipt of any gift and nature of the other person's interest in the matter.
* A councillor must report their belief or suspicion that another councillor has an undeclared material personal interest or conflict of interest, and the facts that led to that finding.
* Failing to inform a council meeting of one's own conflict of interest could lead to one year in jail.
* Taking retaliatory action against a councillor who reported you could result in a two-year jail term.
* New integrity offences carry a four-year jail term.
* If a councillor has a conflict of interest and attempts to influence another councillor, council employee or contractor, they face two years in jail.