Ipswich council wants to change 'conflict of interest' rules

COUNCILLORS are spending a significant amount of time during meetings declaring 'conflicts of interest' including disclosing where their children play sport.

At the last three monthly meetings Ipswich councillors made 21 declarations of a "perceived conflict of interest" while voting on nine items.

Some are considered minor, such as Mayor Paul Pisasale declaring he is a supporter of the Brassall Christmas in the Park event, while others are more serious including Cr Andrew Antoniolli's involvement with the RSPCA.

It's an area that is now being considered for reform after Ipswich City Council successfully tabled a motion at the annual Local Government Association Conference being held this week on the Gold Coast.

The council is calling on the LGAQ to lobby the State Government to simplify the process, saying the current rules can lead to lengthy declarations, often with numerous councillors declaring the same conflict.

But experts warn reform could be dangerous with the definition of a 'minor' or 'major' conflict playing a key role.

During meetings, councillors are required by legislation, under the Local Government Act 2009, to declare any vested interest or association that could be reasonably perceived as a conflict.

Councillors then decide whether they should excuse themselves from the debate and the vote. If the conflict is considered 'minor' they can stay with the approval of fellow councillors.

In Ipswich that has led to frequent and repeated declarations from councillors, and the CEO, as directors of Ipswich City Properties for example, and other council companies.

Extract from one of two motions put forward by the Ipswich City Council at the LGAQ Conference which finished on Thursday.
Extract from one of two motions put forward by the Ipswich City Council at the LGAQ Conference which finished on Thursday.

In the motion put to the LGAQ Conference, which finished yesterday, Ipswich City Council says the declarations can be "onerous and cumbersome when all councillors declare similar conflicts".

It goes on to suggest that if a conflict is already recorded in a councillor's register of interests, "it does not need to be re-declared in a meeting of the Local Government every time it arises".

University of Queensland's Professor Graeme Orr, an expert in law relating to politics, elections and finance, says the public should be reminded, every meeting, when a major conflict of interest arises - no matter how onerous or time consuming that may be.

Prof Orr said the media, ratepayers and political opposition can't be expected to rely solely on a register of interests which then becomes their responsibility to check before and after meetings.

"If you don't declare the conflict who is reflecting on whether it is minor or major?" Prof Orr said.

"The whole point of the system of declarations is to have the council as a whole consider the ethics of that person having a part in the debate and the vote.

 

Professor Graeme Orr from the University of Queensland's School of Law is an expert in law relating to politics, elections, finance;?labour and employment.
Professor Graeme Orr from the University of Queensland's School of Law is an expert in law relating to politics, elections, finance;?labour and employment.

"A clear distinction needs to be made between minor and major; and major issues should always be aired in every meeting."

Prof Orr said declarations like Cr Antoniolli's regarding his children's involvement in Ipswich Netball Club during this month's meeting would never be expected to be listed on a register of interests.

Toowoomba's Mayor Paul Antonio supported Ipswich's call, but stressed the seriousness of the topic.

"No one in local government wants to go out backwards," he said.

"There are rules and you have to follow the rules.... some more clarification around those rules would be welcome.

"But at the end of the day a conflict is a conflict and has to be declared."

An Ipswich City Council spokesperson said the motion, which passed 145 to 71, was proposed to ensure that councillors' conflicts of interest were more transparent.