Can we step wisely through the minefield of Councillor Conflicts of Interest?

Our new Noosa Councillors will soon be getting up to speed on the Queensland-wide Conflicts of Interest Policy that is one of the guide rails that keeps our Council on track.  But those rails don’t always follow a straight line.   

We’ve watched bemused as Council meetings have verged on comical with endlessly repeated declarations, while some Councillors have weaponised and abused the process – twisting it to unfairly throw opponents out of the room.

Our newly minted Councillors are arriving to revamped Conflict of Interest rules, so let’s look at what they face.

The purpose of the Policy is to ensure that, if a councillor has a personal interest in a matter, the Council deals with it in an accountable and transparent way that meets community expectations. 

The intention is that Councillors perform their duties in a fair and unbiased way, and that the decisions they make are not affected by self-interest, private affiliations, or the likelihood of personal gain or loss including to close associates or related parties.

Unfortunately, actual, potential and perceived conflicts of interest have not always been easily identifiable and that has allowed them to be weaponised by some councillors wishing to swing a vote in their favour.

Representing community groups is part of a Councillor’s role

Recent amendments to the Act hopefully will eliminate some ‘gaming’ of the system as it is now clear that councillors can represent the views of a “community group, sporting club or similar organisation” provided they are not an executive member of the organisation.

Such a relationship is no longer a “declarable interest”. In fact, a councillor can be the patron of an organisation “who, under a formal arrangement, provides public support to the group, club or organisation as its ambassador or representative “.

So when does a councillor have to declare a conflict of interest and why?

It is necessary that private interests that conflict with the public interest are identified and managed effectively to guard against the damaging perception that Council decisions are compromised by undeclared or unmanaged private interests.

A councillor has a “declarable conflict of interest” in a matter if;

(a) the councillor has, or could reasonably be presumed to have, a conflict between the councillor’s personal interests, or the personal interests of a related party of the councillor, and the public interest; and 

(b) because of the conflict, the councillor’s participation in a decision about the matter might lead to a decision that is contrary to the public interest.

A person is a “related party of the councillor” in relation to a matter only if the councillor knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the person’s involvement in the manner and includes a close associate of the councillor, a parent, child or sibling of the councillor’s spouse and a person who has a close personal relationship with the councillor.

A “close associate” of a councillor includes a spouse; a parent, child or sibling; a partner in a partnership; an employer; an entity for which the councillor is an executive officer or board member; an entity in which the councillor or a close associate has an interest, other than an interest of less than 5% in an entity that is a listed corporation under the Corporations Act.

However, the person is a close associate of the councillor in relation to a matter only if the councillor knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the person’s involvement in the matter.

A key question, therefore, is does the councillor know, or ought they reasonably know, about the person’s involvement in the matter.

If a councillor has a prescribed conflict of interest in a matter, that councillor must not participate in a decision relating to the matter.

If a Councillor has a potential or perceived conflict of interest they are required to declare it at the meeting and the other councillors will then decide, on the basis of the facts, whether or not the Councillor can continue to participate in deciding the matter.

Once a conflict of interest has been determined in this manner, hopefully similar conflicts can be resolved quickly to save wasting Council’s time.

The recent amendments also; 

  • establish statutory limitation periods for when complaints, notices, or referrals must be made to the Independent Assessor. 
  • replaces the term ‘inappropriate conduct’ with ‘conduct breach’; limits the application of the complaints system to councillors’ conduct in their official capacity, and to sitting councillors (except where their conduct is suspected corrupt conduct). 
  • and introduces a scheme to declare persons vexatious complainants. 

The conflicts of interest policy remains complex but hopefully the recent changes can overcome the undesirable use of the policy against opponents for personal interest and contrary to the public interest.

As an example of how conflicts of interest were weaponised in the last Council – presumably out of abundance of caution, Cr Stockwell declared a potential conflict arising from planning advice he had given years earlier to a not-for-profit group that was one of many to submit its views on the river plan.

It’s hard to imagine a more inconsequential and trivial so-called ‘potential conflict’.

However, the former Mayor Clare Stewart – backed by two Councillors – used their numbers and the Mayor’s casting vote when the numbers were even to exclude him from the vote. They then used the same numbers with the Mayor’s casting vote to defer the Council making a policy decision.

It’s worth reminding yourself of this low point in our Council’s governance last year.

As we embark on a new four-year term of an invigorated Noosa Council with a new Mayor at the helm, our community wants to see a clear line drawn between genuine conflicts of interests and the ‘gaming’ of the system by Councillors trying to avoid a fair debate on the issues.


This Post Has One Comment

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    It is such a relief to have read Noosa Matters and discover that our suspicions that all was « not well in our beautiful Denmark « are well founded.!
    Noosa has so many people living here who cherish our nature and seek only to create a safe place for Flora and fauna (which includes us humans )and now that it has been returned to us we hope to still be able to take walks unimpeded by hotels and suchlike which was a dream for developers .Thank you and good luck council .

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