Transparency and accountability in local government should be improved says the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC).
A report on the CCC’s investigations into “Transparency and accountability in local Government” was tabled in Parliament in December 2015.
The CCC recommendations called for legislative reform to improve transparency and accountability in local government electoral disclosure requirements.
The State Government is now proposing to make changes to local government electoral laws.
While the CCC recommendations and Government’s proposed legislation will improve transparency, some issues need to be tightened up.
A plan to increase the political donation disclosure level from $200 to $500 should be resisted.
The current “confusion” between reporting limits in various laws should be resolved by requiring all gifts and political donations with a value of $200 or greater to be disclosed promptly.
The inadequacy of current laws about local government political donations was discussed by Redlands2030 in Mayor Williams gets a mysterious gift.
The State Government should also move to ban political donations from property developers at both the local and state level of government.
Australians’ trust in government has fallen over the past year from 45% to 37% according to a recent survey.
Improving the transparency of the election process at all levels of government will help fix this alarming trust deficit.
Improving electoral accountability is a start
The Government’s response to the QCC report was informed by the work of a Review Panel set up to assist the Department of Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning (DILGP) to prepare new legislation. The result is the Local Government Electoral reform bill, which was announced by Minister Trad on 1 December 2016 when she claimed the legislative reform:
- Provides for the implementation of a real-time online disclosure system for local government electoral donations, consistent with the state system
- Clarifies that incorporated associations are not be permitted to receive or hold electoral campaign funds which are intended to be applied for a member’s benefit, either directly or indirectly
- Ensures that a candidate’s dedicated account can only be used for gifts and loans received and expenditure made for electoral campaigns, making it easier to trace campaign expenditure
- Requires unspent campaign donations in a candidate’s dedicated account to be either kept in the account for the conduct of another election campaign, paid to a registered charity nominated by the candidate, or paid to the relevant political party
- Sets the candidate and third party election disclosure donation threshold at $500 to align with a councillor’s register of interest gift disclosures threshold
Subsequently, the Bill was referred to the Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee and, as a result, public submissions on the Bill were invited to be lodged with the Committee up until 30 January 2017.
The Bill and the Explanatory Notes to the Bill are a useful references for keen students, because the Bill is an amendment to existing electoral legislation. In short the objectives of the Bill (relevant to electoral processes) are said to be:
1. improve transparency and accountability in local government electoral disclosure requirements and to remove any confusion
2. clarify that the Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) may continue to recover direct and indirect costs associated with local government elections
Do the reforms go far enough?
The proposed local government electoral reforms are well short of the New South Wales system that bans electoral donations from property developers. It is likely the majority of people in Queensland would welcome similar reforms, as demonstrated by Redlands2030 polling.
Social media regularly reports (or at least asserts) failures in local government in terms of transparency and accountability. One community response (in Queensland) is the Facebook page No longer mystified – participatory government – working for the community . This page regularly reports on failure of questionable actions by local governments across Australia (including Queensland).
Redlands2030 has published many stories about electoral processes and electoral donations:
- Mayor Williams gets a mysterious gift
- Queensland (and Redlands) would be better without developer donations…
- Community wants ban on developers’ donations
- Should Queensland ban political donations from developers? – Poll
- Political donations and conflicts of interest in Redland City Council
Will Redland City Council support more transparency?
Redland City Councillors have not discussed the proposed electoral reforms in open session, and given the timeframe and the agenda for the next meeting it seems Council will not be expressing its view or that of the community in the current consultation process.
Have your say
Overall the community deserves a higher level of accountability and transparency in the electoral process. While the Government’s changes go some way to increase both transparency and accountability more work is required to increase trust in the system of local government.
While legislative reform is a dry and tiresome process, there is a need for people to express concerns that in terms of the latest reforms, the QCC recommendations have not been fully embraced.
If you wish to express your concern before the closing date (10.00am, Monday 30 January 2017), simply email this post as a submission to the Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee ie:
Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee
What did the QCC say about local government transparency?
The CCC Report made six(6) recommendations to to improve transparency and accountability in local Government. These recommendations, together with some comments from Redlands2030, are listed below.
That associations incorporated or unincorporated not be permitted to use any official title (such as Mayor) in the name unless it is a controlled entity and therefore subject to auditing by Queensland Audit Office (QAO).
Recommendation 2 :
That the Associations Incorporation Act 1981 be amended to make it clear that incorporated associations cannot be used to receive or hold electoral campaign funds which are intended to be applied for a member’s benefit, either directly or indirectly.
That the Government consider amendment to disclosure time frames to make the disclosure of donations more contemporaneous with the receipt of the donation by the candidate and others required to make a disclosure.
Recommendation 4 :
That the Government consider amendment to disclosure requirements in the Local Government Electoral Act 2011 and the Local Government Act 2009 to align the threshold obligations for reporting.
For individual candidates, the Bill increases the donation disclosure threshold from $200 to $500, thereby reducing the disclosure burden. This should stay at $200- for greater accountability and transparency.
For third parties, the Bill decreases the donation disclosure threshold from $1,000 to $500…..which increase accountability but again a limit of $200 is suggested.
That the Government expand the regulation of donations to include the expenditure of donations and a requirement to account for unspent donations by either only using the funds for campaign purposes or transferring them to a registered charity.
The CCC report states that with this change transparency would be greatly increased if, at the end of the relevant disclosure period, candidates were required to:-
- submit a return in relation to the expenditure of the funds and
- maintain any unspent funds in a dedicated account until the candidate runs for the next election or transfer the funds to a registered charity.
It was disappointing that the State Government chose not to fully support this change, nor did the Local Government Association, in regards to the requirement that local government candidates were to submit an expenditure return in addition to a donations return.
The change to the CCC recommendation is not justified and it is to be hoped that the community and Councillors support introducing an expenditure return. Without an expenditure return there is no transparency concerning the spending of funds/donations.
It is not clear how the second part of the recommendation that requires unspent campaign donations be either held for future campaign purpose or transferred to a charity or returned to the relevant party would be monitored – with an expense register? However it would allow transparency for the public when councillors do accept donations and if the public know the amounts and where funds were spent. This accountability would help reduce perceptions that electoral donations could be used for future personal use or gain.
That the Government strengthen the obligation upon councillors, chief executive officers and senior executive employees (relevant persons) to declare funds, gifts or benefits provided to another entity which could be perceived to provide the relevant person with a benefit.
It is a surprise that the Government did not adopt this recommendation as it is a level of transparency and accountability that most people would expect. The support for this recommendation should be in any proposed submission.