Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has announced her government will ban developer donations at both the state and local level, following the release of a damning report by the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC).
The CCC investigated complaints regarding candidates in last year’s local council elections finding widespread flouting of the state’s electoral laws, which it said was largely due to “a deficient legislative and regulatory framework”, a fact reflected in the “recurring nature” of corruption issues in the state.
The investigation focused on the councils of Gold Coast, Ipswich, Moreton Bay and Logan, in which several complaints had been received regarding the conduct of candidates.
- councillors unlawfully influencing the outcome of council decisions on development applications
- candidates campaigning as independents when they were working as part of a group
- candidates failing to give a disclosure return within the required time, or including false or misleading information
- candidates failing to operate a dedicated bank account during their disclosure period
Widespread non-compliance was found regarding disclosure timeliness and failure to operate a dedicated bank account, however there was “insufficient evidence” to warrant referral to prosecution authorities for other alleged offences, though allegations that councillors have unlawfully influenced the outcome of council decisions on development applications are still being finalised by the CCC, and it will not be drawn on the status of these investigations.
Nonetheless, CCC chair Alan MacSporran said there were significant weaknesses in the framework that needed to be reformed to “deliver equity, transparency, integrity and better accountability in council elections and council decision-making”.
It has put forward 31 recommendations, including:
- prohibiting donations from property developers to local government councillors and candidates
- improving how councillors identify and manage conflicts of interest
- the introduction of campaign expenditure caps
- real-time disclosure of electoral expenditure
- making all candidates’ interests, including party political membership, known to voters before polling day
- more clearly defining what is meant by a “group” of candidates
- ensuring all donations are known to voters before polling day
- making more information about donors and donations available to the public
- improving compliance by candidates and donors with disclosure obligations
- improving candidates’ management of campaign funds
- strengthening regulatory responses to non-compliance
Rules will apply to state too
Responding to the report, Ms Palaszczuk said she supported the most controversial recommendation.
“I will ensure that developer donations are banned,” she said. “But not only that. I will ensure they will apply not just to council, but also to the state as well.
“Queenslanders should have confidence in the transparency and integrity of all levels of government. I will not make rules for local councils that I am not prepared to follow myself, so any changes we make will apply to state, as well as local government.”
Ms Palaszczuk said she also wanted to see an end to councillors voting on issues where there was a conflict of interest, a subject highlighted in a recent Four Corners report on the Gold Coast Council.
She said she would bring a submission to cabinet on Monday that addressed “all the implications” of the report.
Call for reform to apply to all
Not everyone’s happy, however.
The Local Government Association of Queensland, the peak body for councils, said it did not support the recommendation to ban developer donations nor the recommendation to force councillors with a conflict of interest to leave meetings.
LGAQ president Mark Jamieson, who is mayor of Sunshine Coast Council, said transparency measures should instead be improved, with LGAQ supporting the introduction of real-time disclosure of electoral donations, and also advocating to make a register of interests compulsory for candidates when they nominate for election.
The Property Council said if property developer donations were banned, bans should also apply to “businesses, environmental groups, community groups and unions”.
“There are many sectors and interests that are impacted by government policy, regulation, tenders or subsidy and the community should rightly expect that political donations do not distort decision making in any area,” PCA Queensland executive director Chris Mountford said.
“If we start singling out individuals or groups, where will it end, and how will the community have confidence that the definitions and delineations are relevant.”
He said the PCA was “certainly open” to changes but in the interest of community confidence they should apply to all.
In NSW the Rees Labor government passed laws banning donations from developers in 2009, which came into effect in January 2010, and gained the same response from development lobby groups – that all non-individual donations should be banned.
The laws followed damage to NSW Labor caused by planning decisions favourable to developers that had contributed heavily to the party – damage that has contributed to it sitting in opposition for the past six years.
Labor councillor John Wakefield, who was recently voted in as mayor of Waverley Council, wrote for The Fifth Estate that the development industry was of particular concern in relation to conflict of interest, calling for an outright ban on developers standing for council.
“When considering what councils do, many if not the majority of actions have a potential impact on property values and development potential,” he said.
“It is not too long a bow to believe that developers and real estate agents are so steeped in potential conflicts of interest due to their private ‘office of profit’ that they should be disqualified from standing as councillors.”