Integrity Commissioner: Defining the role of the Commissioner
By the Queensland Integrity Commissioner Dr Nikola Stepanov
Welcome to another edition of Commissioner’s Corner.
So far this financial year, I have continued to visit Councils throughout Queensland and provide councillors with ethics and integrity advice on an individual basis.
However, I have noticed that there is some confusion about the scope of my jurisdiction in terms of the advice I can provide. I am also often asked questions which are dealt with by other agencies or in online resources already available.
As Integrity Commissioner, my role is to give advice about ethics and integrity issues to the more than 5000 people who fall under the Integrity Act 2009.
I have a team of 4 staff to assist and resources are limited. As well, I am unable to delegate the advice function - each advice must be finalised by me. Just as issues arise urgently for mayors and councillors, so to for all others who fall under the Integrity Act 2009. For this reason, I have to decline to provide advice unless a matter fundamentally relates to the scope of my role.
Therefore, I would like to set out the circumstances in which I can best be of assistance and when it may be appropriate for you to contact other agencies or access existing resources.
Often councillors request advice from me about whether a particular personal interest, such as a dual role or a relationship, gives rise to a conflict of interest. I can, and do, provide advice about the factors to be considered in deciding whether a conflict of interest exists.
However, ultimately, it is for the non-conflicted councillors at a meeting to decide whether there is a conflict of interest and, if so, how it should be managed. If there is any doubt, I recommend that you declare your personal interests for transparency and to avoid any breach.
I also encourage you to refer to the local government Guide and Aids I have developed in conjunction with the Independent Assessor. These resources are easy to read, are based on extensive research, and were developed after several months of providing advice about conflicts of interest to councillors. Pending legislative change, they may well provide the answer to your question.
Out of scope
I am often asked by councillors to comment on the behaviour of another councillor. However, the purpose of my advice is to assist designated persons to ensure that their own conduct is ethical, rather than to form opinions about, or pass judgment on, the behaviour of others. Also, I cannot give legal advice, such as advice about whether particular conduct would amount to misconduct as defined in the Local Government Act 2009 (Qld) (LGA).
Therefore, while I can advise you about how you can raise or progress concerns, I will not express a view about whether another councillor has a conflict of interest, behaved unethically or breached the LGA.
If you are concerned about another councillor’s conduct, you may wish to raise your concerns with the councillor in question or the mayor, or contact the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) to discuss the merits of making a complaint.
You can find out more about the OIA and how to make a complaint here.
Political donations, meeting procedures or general administrative and legal matters
I am also regularly asked about political donations, meeting procedures, and general legal matters.
Such questions are outside the scope of my role. Fortunately, however, help is available.
Questions about donations or disclosure returns are best directed to the Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ). Before you contact the ECQ, it’s a good idea to check if the answer to your question is already available on the ECQ website, which contains a number of guides and other resources.
If you have a general legal question, the best approach is to seek legal advice either via Council or on your own behalf.
For procedural or administrative queries, the Department of Local Government, Racing and Multicultural Affairs (the Department) may be able to assist. The Department also has a number of resources which may be helpful.
Amendments to the Local Government Act 2009
Finally, The Local Government Electoral (Implementing Stage 2 of Belcarra) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 (Bill) proposes fundamental changes to the law in relation to conflicts of interest. I understand that the Bill may be enacted shortly, however, I am unaware of its final form.
The proposed legislative changes, including the introduction of prescribed and declarable conflicts of interest, will represent a significant change in the way personal interest issues are assessed and managed.
Once enacted, your obligations in regard to identifying and managing personal interests under the amended provisions will essentially be matters of legal interpretation, and beyond the scope of my role. Similarly, my advice based on the current provisions will be correspondingly superseded when the Bill is enacted.
I recommend that any councillors with concerns about the application of the new provisions seek legal advice, or advice from the Department.
Local Government Association of Queensland
LG House, 25 Evelyn Street, Newstead Qld 4006
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