The disintegration of cooperative, effective governance in this term of a deeply fractured Noosa Council has been disturbing to witness. Never more so than during what passed for a Council “ordinary’ meeting in October; a meeting in which any attempt at repairing the ailing Noosa River was derailed, and the conventions surrounding conflicts of interest and fair debate were trashed.
It’s worth revisiting the stench around that October 26th meeting once more in the hope that our Council can recover from it and perhaps learn. And to see if the result could and should have been different.
As we have previously reported, all progress on a plan to protect the Noosa River – including consulting the public on the idea of a Conservation Park – stopped when one of the pro-environment Councillors was thrown out of the meeting on what some have called a “flimsy and concocted” Conflict of Interest.
Councillor Brian Stockwell was barred from voting by the bloc consisting of LNP Mayor Clare Stewart – using her casting vote – and her allies Councillors Lorentson and Finzel. Those three decided that because Cr Stockwell, years earlier, had provided advice as an expert planner to a small not-for-profit group which had recently given its opinion on the river plan…he should be thrown out of the room.
The Mayor also argued that because Councillor Stockwell, an experienced former Planner, had consulted with senior staff about the River Plan, he was somehow conflicted and should be excluded.
Both of these pretexts were extraordinary, and both create dangerous precedents.
But were there other conflicts, genuine conflicts, which may have produced an entirely different outcome on the River Plan vote had they emerged that day?
One of the clearly established declarable conflicts comes up when a Council is discussing matters raised in a petition presented to them. If a signatory to such a petition is a close associate, family member or donor, they must declare it if they are aware of it or should reasonably be aware of it.
One of the signatories to a petition on the River Plan was Peter Butt, a member of the well-heeled political lobby group Eastern Beaches Protection Association. He also donated $1666.66 to Ms Finzel’s 2020 campaign, as part of the controversial Future Noosa team and has previously been declared in Ms Finzel’s Conflicts.
Mr Butt was one of the signatories of a petition to Council on the River Plan. This was his online explanation for why he signed.
It was well known within Council that Mr Butt was one of the signatories of the discredited petition.
He was one of about 2,400 to sign what was a hysterical and baseless document that made false claims about taking rights away from boaties, and attracted eloquent supporters like these.
Leaving the room when discussing a petition signed by a close friend, family member or campaign donor is usually something Councillors do as a matter of course. For instance, Mayor Stewart did so in July with this statement.
I, Cr Stewart, inform the meeting that I have a declarable conflict of interest in this matter as, unbeknownst to me at the time, my mother signed a petition against the development for the proposed Noosa Springs Hotel. Subsequently to finding this out, I have since removed myself from all workshops and discussion on this application
In October though, Councillor Finzel did not declare her equivalent conflict. To be fair, she attended the meeting by Zoom and may not have been aware a substantial donor of hers had signed. But it could be argued this was still a more serious conflict than the one used to remove Cr Stockwell.
At least one other Councillor could have been caught in the same way if anyone had bothered to read through the petition list before the meeting.
In fact, on one reckoning, as many as six of the seven Councillors could have been asked to explain possible conflicts of one kind or another.
Yet, only one conflict was raised and used to effectively guillotine any debate on the river plan.
What’s the point in revisiting this unfortunate chapter in local politics ? The nature of Conflict of Interest declarations is that they should be made honestly and debated openly and in good faith. Not constructed from the flimsiest of material and then weaponised cynically to achieve a desired outcome.
As to the shouting Boating and Fishing mob claiming the idea of a Conservation Park plan would somehow block them from using their beloved river. To use their own parlance, it’s bullshit.
Larry Sengstock, the Council’s Acting Chief Executive Officer employed more circumspect language to say the same thing;
Council does not have the authority to ban powered vessel access to the river and does not seek to gain this authority. There is no proposal to prevent powered vessels from accessing the river, in fact Council is working with Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) to identify suitable upgrades to boating facilities.
We have watched as Councillors play political games with social media misinformation, undermine the concept of a ‘collaborative’ Council and trash the conventions of debating Conflicts of Interest in good faith.
There’s plenty of room in our Council for different views, but what we witnessed in October was an embarrassment for all of Noosa.