Best of intentions, but must our government persist in making bad laws for local councils?

The farcical resignation of Rockhampton Mayor Margaret Strelow has shone a spotlight on those who govern our local governments, as Craig Johnstone reports

Nov 11, 2020, updated Nov 11, 2020
Queensland Tourism Minister Stirling Hinchliffe.  (Photo: AAP Image/Darren England)

Queensland Tourism Minister Stirling Hinchliffe. (Photo: AAP Image/Darren England)

It might be tempting to blame the fiasco being played out in the central Queensland city of Rockhampton – which has just lost its long-time popular mayor over an integrity breach that wasn’t – on an unusual legislative glitch.

But that would be far too kind to those in the Palaszczuk Government who were warned about the unintended consequences of what they wanted to do but went ahead and did it gladly.

Now outgoing Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe is scrambling to fix laws that Blind Freddy could see were undemocratic in that they contained the potential for mayoral wannabes who failed at an election to cruise into the top job anyway should the circumstances fall in their favour.

The prospect of Chris “Pineapple” Hooper replacing Margaret Strelow as Rockhampton mayor, despite him being unable to muster more than a third of the vote at the local council election last March, is appalling for those who value the importance of local government to Queensland’s economic and social well-being.

That election runners-up are able to replace departing mayors in the first 12 months of a local government term – no matter how few votes they attracted at an election – is as elegant an example as any that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Surprise, surprise: the Government now thinks so, too.

“Once the new parliament is sworn in, the Palaszczuk Government will introduce and pass a bill to retrospectively amend the Local Government Act,” the minister declared in a media statement hours after Pineapple’s impending good fortune made headlines.

“I have received advice that should this be completed at the earliest opportunity, any vacancies to any mayoral or councillor positions that have recently arisen will need to be filled through a by-election,” he said.

“This will ensure communities can have a proper vote to determine who represents them.”

It is sad this view was not shared by those in the government who brought such a ridiculous law to the parliament.

Downright mystifying is the fact that this law is only the latest in a string of bad legislation that has made life extremely difficult for those community-minded folk who stand for council.

Queensland’s conflict of interest provisions for local government are a cold and murky soup of rules that befuddle even the smartest of lawyers and have so tied up councils trying to follow procedure that meetings go on for hours longer than they should.

It was this government that introduced laws so strict that former Brisbane lord mayor Graham Quirk decided he was unable to eat at a lunch function lest he breach rules banning favours from property developers.

It was also this government that tried to ram through electoral changes that would force people to number every box on their ballot paper at local council elections _ a move that was against the express wishes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry reforms.

But let’s face it: the Rockhampton disaster, along with other legislative stuff-ups for which this government won’t admit to until their silliness is plain for all to see, is the product of a bureaucracy trying to second-guess its political masters and tinkering with institutions simply because it can.

Hinchliffe’s promise that this latest snafu would be fixed quickly turned out to be his final media statement before news broke that he would be moving on from the local government portfolio. What an epitaph.

God save us from people who mean well.

— Craig Johnstone is a former media executive at the LGAQ


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