Slinging the mud, Noosa style

In 30 years Noosa has changed dramatically, but when it comes to the grubby side of local politics, some things haven’t changed much in those three decades.

After the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) was established in 1989, frivolous complaints about council elected members were quite popular in an attempt to influence elections.

Those who lived here in the nineties always knew a council election was close when the local paper was informed that so-and-so was under investigation by the CJC because a complaint had been made. 

All the informer had to do was make a complaint and the legislation required it to be investigated, even if it was anonymous, frivolous or vexatious.  The local media played its part – as it still does – in printing the anonymous slurs after a tip off from, well…you can guess.

The system of oversight of government in Queensland has been fine tuned since those days, and complaints about councillor conflict of interest are now handled by the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA). The system is undergoing re-assessment right now, and not before time. 

Last year’s report to Parliament revealed 15 staff were required to deal with 900 complaints the previous year. After an initial assessment , 64 percent of them were dismissed with no investigation warranted.

The system within council meetings for dealing with conflict of interest could only have been dreamed up by someone trying to inflict some kind of practical joke on us.

It requires a tiresome process of a wordy ‘declaration of interest’ whenever a meeting agenda involves a community organisation that has a councillor as a member.  This begins to look like an old Marx Brothers comedy routine taking up huge chunks of Council time, with the same unnecessary declarations repeated over and over.

Research 20 years ago revealed that over half the councillors in Queensland were members of not-for-profit community organisations when they were elected. Except for some large councils where party politics often decide election results, right across Queensland voters prefer electing people with demonstrated commitment to community. They are elected by their communities because of those memberships, not in spite of them.

Surely it’s enough when councillors are required after election to make public declarations of those memberships and other interests like asset ownership as well as election contributions. Requiring repeated declarations in meetings of a conflict of interest because of already declared membership of a community organisation is totally uncalled for.  

Simplifying the system would also reduce the capacity for abusing the complaints process for election purposes.

Mark Twain once said that “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”

A good example is the complaint made by some strange individual about Councillor Frank Wilkie (now a Mayoral candidate) before the 2020 elections for not declaring an ‘interest’ in a council meeting. 

We learned last year that his ‘crime’ was not to declare a conflict of interest when Council voted on a $2,000 grant to a Community Association where he had previously been a member, where his deceased father had been President, and the Vice President had donated $200 to his election campaign.

After this was raised yet again in a letter to Noosa Today recently, the following was part of a well-written response by community activist Julia Walkden.

The complaint against Deputy Mayor Frank Wilkie, referred to by Ben Jackson in his letter to the editor, Noosa Today – 18 August, was lodged with the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) five years ago in 2018.

According to the Courier Mail, 24 November 2022, “Councillor Wilkie was present at a council meeting when discussion of a community grant of $2000 for the Peregian Beach Community Association was discussed.”

“The proposal was for a ring of 10 sandstone blocks in a public space near the Peregian Community Kindergarten. This grant was never awarded because the council created the ring of stones without the community association having to hire a contractor for the job.”

After more than three years of deliberations, the OIA’s tribunal found that “the issue is one of perception” and that Cr Wilkie should have declared a perceived conflict of interest, even though he was no longer a member of the Association at the time of the discussion and the Council did not fund the grant application.

I do not consider this a breach of ethical and legal behaviour of a councillor. In fact, this complaint appears to have been politically motivated, designed to affect the result of the 2020 elections.

Julia Walkden – letter to Noosa Today
The stone circle, centre of a complaint described as “politically motivated”.

I was part of an independent Review Panel that reviewed the previous councillor conduct provisions in 2016/7 and made significant recommendations for change.   These did not include the current ridiculous system of endless declarations in council meetings. The Panel would also have considered the “misconduct” assessment of Cr Wilkie’s action as ‘over the top’. 

So the complaint was made before the 2020 election, and Frank was re-elected. It was then not until last year – more than three years later – that we learned that the Tribunal had assessed his conduct as misconduct ‘on the balance of probabilities’. 

Now – out of the political sewer – this particular piece of mud emerges to see daylight again, raised by a Ben Jackson in Noosa Today, and regurgitating the same non-issue that was done to death in the public arena last year. 

Presumably it’s the same Benjamin Jackson who claims on LinkedIn to work in Indonesia, and to have been a campaign advisor at the last Noosa Council elections, apparently on a break in his spin doctor work (communications) in PNG at the time.

Linkedin entries

Although some of the mud slinging we’re referring to was close to her campaign, none of this is a reflection on Councillor Finzel who – as a first-time candidate in 2020 – was probably unaware of some of the dirty tricks being played by one or two characters who we might describe as ‘the usual suspects’.

We’ve seen the first grubby signs of what we’ve come to expect as we head towards the March election, and this time we will judge people by the company they keep. 

And those copping the mud-slinging simply because they have connections with genuine, not-for-profit community groups should wear these attacks as a badge of honour.  I know I did. 


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