Independent Assessor: Conduct in the election lead-up
As the 2020 local government elections draw closer integrity issues remain a key theme, and the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) has begun working with the Electoral Commission of Queensland and the Crime and Corruption Commission to do what we can to ensure that you are considered by constituents on your merits. For integrity agencies this also means doing what we can to prevent misuse of the complaints systems in the lead-up to the polls.
Based on past elections, the OIA is anticipating an increased number of complaints and a heightened scrutiny of councillors. We have a range of measures to deal with this, some of which are outlined below.
As a first step however, I urge you to focus, not on complainants or keyboard warriors, but on your own conduct. Is your register of interests up to date, and do you have good systems in place to identify and manage any conflicts of interest or material personal interests?
As the contest heats up, remember not to release information that is confidential to local government in setting out your case for re-election, or make public statements that are false or misleading,
Occupy the high ground on social media whether that be in your own posts or the things that you share and like. To help you navigate this space, the OIA and the LGAQ have developed a social media guide which is available on our website.
A large proportion of the complaints the OIA receives are about the very issues I’ve outlined above. Therefore, proactively addressing them is the most effective way of ensuring your election campaign is focused on the issues of greatest importance to your community.
Campaigning and the Code of Conduct
As campaigning ramps up, the OIA is seeing an increase in the number of councillors lodging complaints about other councillors. Some have taken objection to public statements made based on Behavioural Standards 2 and 3 in the Code of Conduct for Councillors in Queensland which require that councillors, at a minimum, show respect for other councillors and members of the public, respect other views and opinions and avoid making unnecessary or irrelevant comments in order to undermine other councillors or their positions.
While the OIA consistently takes a strong position on the requirement for councillors to be respectful in their dealings with members of the public, we recognise the Code of Conduct should not be misused to stifle robust discussion and debate between councillors, and with candidates - particularly in the lead-up to the elections. Such debate is necessary to further the community’s understanding of local issues and where councillors and candidates stand on them.
The line in the sand however, is where a councillor makes comments that are unnecessarily personal and offensive, or publicises misleading or untrue statements about another councillor or candidate.
Depending on the context, any such statements may be categorised as either inappropriate conduct or misconduct.
The OIA not only enforces legislative standards for councillor conduct, we also have a responsibility to address unacceptable conduct by complainants.
The OIA can dismiss a complaint on the basis that it is not made in good faith and may prosecute people who make frivolous or improper complaints. People who can be charged include members of the public, electoral candidates or prospective candidates. If found guilty, they face a fine of more than $11,000.
This offence now also applies to local government officials including councillors and council Chief Executive Officers (CEOs).
Complainants who are genuinely unsure of whether their complaint has substance have nothing to fear if they keep the matter confidential and allow the disciplinary process to take its course.
We explain more about vexatious and frivolous complaints and those that are not made in good faith in our 3rd edition of Insight.
Not in good faith: acting on the indicators
The OIA recommends that councillors and complainants keep confidential any matters lodged with us until they have been assessed and, if necessary, investigated.
This will help to limit the publication of serious and unsubstantiated or sometimes false allegations which aim to unfairly influence voters before they head to the polls. In addition, the OIA will be alert to indicators that a complainant may not be acting in good faith.
These indicators include:
- the publication of complaints made to the OIA in the lead-up to an election,
- a pattern of apparently sitting on older complaints and making them public just before an election,
- the making of serious complaints that are lacking in substance,
- arranging for complaints to be made by connected third parties.
Depending on the context and circumstances, this conduct may result in the OIA investigating whether the person has committed the offence of making an improper complaint.
Timeliness of assessments
Currently, the OIA is assessing 85% of complaints received within 21 working days. This has been achieved by identifying frivolous or vexatious complaints and those that result in no further action during the initial assessment phase and dealing with them expeditiously. We will continue to use this strategy so that matters can be finalised as quickly as possible.
While the OIA cannot guarantee the complaints process will not be misused in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, we will certainly be taking all reasonable measures to minimise any misuse of the complaints system.
Contact us 1300 620 722
Web www.oia.qld.gov.au Twitter @OIAQld
Local Government Association of Queensland
LG House, 25 Evelyn Street, Newstead Qld 4006
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