A Crime and Misconduct Commission inquiry has revealed that secrecy, deceit and misinformation during the Gold Coast City Council election of 2004 corrupted the electoral process.
The CMC’s report, tabled in State Parliament today, has been referred to the Department of Local Government, Planning, Sport and Recreation (DLGPSR) to consider prosecuting six people for alleged breaches of the Local Government Act 1993.
The Commission found that, through false statements to the media, a group of Gold Coast candidates were presented as totally independent and funding their own campaign. In fact they were receiving funding through the initiative of sitting councillors David Power and (the late) Sue Robbins. The funding came exclusively from parties with development interests.
If elected, the candidates would be, consciously or unconsciously, beholden to Cr Power and Cr Robbins. They would also be aware that their chances of receiving funding from the two councillors at the next election would depend on their being still viewed as ‘like minded’ candidates.
CMC Chairperson Robert Needham said considerable efforts were made to hide these circumstances because of the belief that the public would react adversely to the knowledge that developers helped the election campaigns.
‘While lying to the media generally isn’t an offence, the many false statements made by some candidates during this election substantially corrupted the electoral process.’
‘The public was forced to go to the polls not knowing the truth about issues that were of legitimate public interest,’ Mr Needham said.
Evidence shows a concerted effort to conceal the existence of a central fund, through which the selected candidates were financed, and the involvement in that fund of Cr Power and Cr Robbins.
Some of the electoral gift returns lodged by candidates, and the third-party return lodged by Lionel Barden after the election, allegedly contained false information.
The report suggests any false information in returns, like any misleading statements to the media, had the potential to damage the integrity of the electoral process.
‘What happened in this matter could not be categorised as an ordinary political process unless the Gold Coast is to be treated as a different country where obligations to the law that bind the rest of Queensland do not apply,’ Mr Needham said.
‘Public office holders on the Gold Coast are not above the law. Their actions can’t be measured by a yardstick cut down to take account of the fact that they live on “the Coast”’.
The CMC will give a report to the DLGPSR to allow it to consider whether prosecution proceedings are warranted against Gold Coast City Council Deputy Mayor David Power for allegedly not lodging returns after the election for some gifts received, as required under the LGA.
The department will also be asked to consider prosecuting Cr Grant Pforr, Gold Coast businessman Lionel Barden and candidates Roxanne Scott and Brian Rowe for allegedly providing false or misleading returns in relation to funds or gifts received.
The CMC has recommended Gold Coast lawyer Tony Hickey be considered for prosecution for allegedly giving Mr Barden false or misleading information in relation to his third-party return.
The CMC report also contains 19 recommendations for legislative amendments that are designed to help prevent misconduct in local government elections and to remove any confusion about the local government electoral process.
The recommendations include amendments to the Local Government Act to:
- establish new disclosure provisions
- require a local government to minute any declaration made by councillors that they have a conflict of interest
- require local government to provide reasons for all decisions made contrary to council officers’ recommendations
The CMC has also recommended that there be a review of the adequacy of the penalties for offences relating to the failure to disclose gifts received.
Mr Needham warns that it is difficult to prevent corruption of the electoral process through legislative change, unless there is a grassroots change in attitudes towards accountability.
‘Gold Coast citizens, as indeed all Queensland citizens, are entitled to hold their elected officials to the highest standards of conduct. Legislative amendment is one way to help this occur, and the CMC has made recommendations for changes that might help this process throughout the state.’
‘But unless elected officials and public officers genuinely adopt their compliance obligations, rather than look for loopholes to avoid them, legislation will have little impact. The public perception will remain that private interests are being placed above public duty,’ Mr Needham said.
Mr Hickey and Cr Power have each also been charged under the Crime and Misconduct Act 2001 for allegedly giving the Commission documents containing information they knew was false or misleading. They have been summonsed to appear at the Brisbane Magistrates Court on 16 May 2006.