Changes to local government election laws
After a year of to-ing and fro-ing, the Queensland Government has now passed the second wave of local government reforms following from the Crime and Corruption Commission's Belcarra Inquiry and the Soorley Inquiry.
The news is that a lot of the fro-ing by councillors and the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) has resulted in some significant last minute changes to the most contentious proposals in the Local Government Electoral (Implementing Stage 2 of Belarra) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 (Bill).
There are three big ticket items amongst those changes that affect councillors intending to stand for office in next year's elections.
The most significant change is the removal of the proposed new regime for conflicts of interest.
Instead of the proposed detailed regulation of what is and is not a conflict of interest, and how conflicts must be dealt with, the existing arrangements under the Local Government Act (and the City of Brisbane Act) will continue indefinitely. So councillors will continue to declare personal interests when they arise at meetings and voluntarily absent themselves from discussions or leave it to their fellow councillors to make a decision about their involvement in the meeting.
The proposed new obligations for councillors to periodically update and confirm their register of interests have also been scrapped.
The third change has been to jettison an issue of significant concern to many councillors. The proposal to deem that a councillor knows the source of any gift or loan has been removed, so the risk of councillors being prosecuted for genuinely being unaware of the ultimate source of a gift is gone.
In addition to the big three, the amendments have also scratched the proposal to introduce full preferential voting into local council elections. Instead, the existing optional preferential voting system will be retained.
Despite the removal of those contentious proposals, the amendments that have been retained mean that councillors need to plan carefully as they prepare for next year's elections.
The big stick of automatic removal from office is now law. After the election, councillors and groups of candidates must provide the Electoral Commission with details of all the donations and other gifts they received worth $500 or more. If the returns are not filed by the due date the councillor "immediately ceases to hold office"1.
Candidates will still be required to have a dedicated bank account for their campaign which requires payments only by electronic funds transfer, debit card or cash. Payment of expenses by a credit card are prohibited.
Changes to what constitutes a group of candidates have been significantly broadened and clarified, with requirements for registration of groups and their members, and regulation of their expenditure similar to individual candidates.
Nominations for election must now disclose whether a candidate has been a member of a political party or a trade or professional organisation within the previous year and provide details of the candidate's dedicated bank account.
It is hard to criticise the aims of greater transparency and accountability that underlies all these reforms but, despite the last minute changes, candidates for office in local government will have some work to do to ensure they meet the practical obligations now placed on them to achieve those lofty aims.
1 s172(1) of the Local Government Act 2009; s174(1) of the City of Brisbane Act 2010
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