THE corruption watchdog has recommended developer donations to council candidates be banned following its protracted investigation into widespread issues at the 2016 local government elections.
The Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) has released its final report into its Operation Belcarra investigation, which focused on 17 allegations relating to the 2016 local government election on the Gold Coast.
It was alleged that candidates had advertised or fundraised as a group without advising the returning officer and failed to operate a dedicated bank account during their disclosure period.
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The allegations also involved perceptions that candidates failed to give a disclosure return within the required time or provided a disclosure return containing information that they knew was false or misleading.
The CCC probe triggered an investigative story by ABC’s Four Corners last month which focused on Mayor Tom Tate and his deputy, Donna Gates.
The Commission’s final report, tabled in Parliament on Wednesday, made 31 recommendations (see a summary and link to them below) to strengthen transparency and integrity in local governments across the state.
The recommendations would create new obligations for candidates, councillors, donors and the ECQ after the CCC investigation identified widespread non-compliance with the Local Government Electoral Act 2011.
All election candidates are required to operate a dedicated bank account for the receipt and payment of all amounts related to their election campaign and must ensure that the account is not used for any other purpose.
However, the CCC said its investigation found widespread low compliance with these requirements.
Of the 59 candidates who contested the Gold Coast election, the CCC found just under 20 per cent did not have a dedicated account at all.
Furthermore, some of the candidates who did have a dedicated account were non-compliant because they did not use it correctly, the CCC found.
The CCC said Mayor Tom Tate established a dedicated account, titled “Tom Tate Mayoral Account”, but paid campaign expenses from multiple personal accounts.
In his evidence, Cr Tate advised that the mayoral account was set up for any donations he may receive from third parties and, at the time, he was of the view that moving money from his personal accounts into the mayoral account for expenditure purposes “didn’t serve any additional transparency”.
However, Cr Tate acknowledged at the public CCC hearing that he should have operated a dedicated account, even though he received no donations from third parties and his campaign was entirely self-funded.
The CCC determined there was sufficient evidence to refer this matter to the ECQ for consideration of any prosecution proceedings it considers warranted for an offence against section 126 of the LGE Act.
However, given the systemic nature of this issue, the CCC determined to take no further action.
In any event, a prosecution for an offence against section 126 of the LGE Act must be commenced within 12 months from when the offence occurred (20 April 2016).
Cr Tate says the CCC’s recommendation to ban developer donations should also be extended to trade unions.
“I would reflect that there should be a cap or a ban in a similar vein for the unions,” he said.
“As you will see in the report, one single mayorla candidate had the highest funding from a union source.
“I’d say for a level playing field, whatever rules you make, you make it for both sides.”
Deputy Mayor Donna Gates told MyGC she has always complited with whatever legislation is in place and vowed to continue doing so.
“I think every level of government should have the same requirements and reporting mechanisms in place,” she said.
“I have no issue with any of the recommendations I’ve seen to date, I think it provides a level playing field for everyone, and clarity which was lacking in the former legislation.”
CCC Chairperson Alan MacSporran QC said Operation Belcarra and other recent investigations have identified significant weaknesses in the current framework and reform is needed to deliver equity, transparency, integrity and better accountability in council elections and council decision-making.
“The report tabled in Parliament today demonstrates why reform of the local government sector is required,” Mr MacSporran said.
“If supported by Parliament, the package of recommendations in my view will result in the most substantial reform of the local government sector in Queensland’s history.
“The recommendations target the four key components of the local government sector being councillors, candidates, donors and the Electoral Commission.”
The CCC also identified deficiencies in how the Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ) currently operates and has recommended changes to broaden its role.
The CCC said number of matters remain under active investigation.
A summary of the key recommendations are listed below:
- Consider the introduction of campaign expenditure caps
- Introduce real-time disclosure of electoral expenditure
- Make all candidates’ interests, including party political membership, known to voters before polling day
- More clearly define what is meant by a “group” of candidates
- Ensure all donations are known to voters before polling day
- Make more information about donors and donations available to the public
- Prohibit donations from property developers to local government councillors and candidates
- Improve compliance by candidates and donors with disclosure obligations
- Improve candidates’ management of campaign funds
- Improve how councillors identify and manage conflicts of interest
- Strengthen regulatory responses to non-compliance.
A number of changes to the ECQ have also been recommended to ensure they have the adequate resources and powers to more effectively administer local government elections. These recommendations include:
These recommendations include:
- Amending the disclosure return forms to ensure they capture all information required to be disclosed by the law to assist candidates and donors comply with their obligations
- Improving the use of the Electronic Disclosure System (EDS) to make more data available to the public
- Resourcing the ECQ to monitor compliance adequately.
To address how conflicts of interests are managed, the CCC also recommends legislative reform so other councillors in the room decide if a councillor has a conflict and therefore should take no part in a decision or vote rather than allowing individual councillors to decide for themselves.
The CCC also recommended the advisory and public awareness functions of the Queensland Integrity Commissioner be extended to local government councillors to help provide advice to them on possible conflicts of interest.
For context and accuracy, the full recommendations are outlined in the report.
To view the full report, click here.