Councils begin countdown to a massive shake-up

The council elections on March 28 will determine how Queensland voters regard the “clean”, the green and the machine.

Mar 02, 2020, updated Mar 02, 2020

And with two state by-elections also being held on March 28, Super Saturday will provide an opportunity to gauge broader community sentiment on issues – first and foremost, the state of the Queensland economy, buffeted by bushfires, floods and now on the brink of a COVID-19 outbreak.

For some voters, the status quo will offer comfort, for others that has already been shattered. As always, in the big city councils there is also a fine line between job-creating, economy-building infrastructure and vanity projects for developer mates only likely to increase rates and divert money from where it’s needed.

A month out from the council elections, there are obvious places to watch but moreover some key themes emerging, culminating in the biggest shakeup southeast Queensland has seen in decades. The Crime and Corruption Commission started this clean-up, at some of Queensland’s biggest councils, and voters will finish it.

At Ipswich City Council, several top officials have been charged, including long-time mayor Paul Pisasale, who has already been found guilty of two counts of extortion and sentenced to two years’ jail, suspended after 12 months.

At Logan City Council, Mayor Luke Smith has been suspended, as he faces court accused of more than a dozen offences, while seven councillors have also been charged.

At Moreton Bay Regional Council, long-time mayor Allan Sutherland faces CCC charges of misconduct, with that investigation yet to run its course.

How voters regard the incoming batch of “clean” candidates remains to be seen. In Ipswich, the LNP’s Teresa Harding and councillor David Martin are frontrunners for mayor, Logan’s contest appears to be between conservative Darren Power and former federal Labor MP Brett Raguse, while in Moreton former LNP candidate Chris Thompson has had some positive press. Nominations close tomorrow, and candidates will be urged not to throw mud unnecessarily. Maybe the reputational damage has already been done.

One similarity these councils have is that they are in southeast Queensland’s key development corridors. In Noosa, the bustling enclave with its own National Park, fears of unfettered development have forced three candidates running under the Future Noosa banner to deny being a front for big business. Due to their campaign, Mayor Tony Wellington might have an eventful few weeks, however his Sunshine Coast counterpart Mark Jamieson is likely to be returned more easily, along with the Gold Coast’s Tom Tate.

Noosa withstood the amalgamation push some years ago but in the more rural regions, the benefits of amalgamation are still being felt and may bolster the existing councils and mayors. A recent Queensland Audit Office report reiterated the importance of careful budget management.

The jewel in the local government crown is Brisbane City Council, where the Liberal Lord Mayor, Adrian Schrinner, is seeking election in his own right after being handed the robes by retiring mayor Graham Quirk mid-term. After a strong start, Schrinner was suddenly overshadowed by Labor’s latest nominee, former journalist Patrick Condren, who sought to characterise the council as a wasteful, bungling, pro-development administration. However, several factors have recently brought Schrinner back into the game, and it remains to be seen whether green issues – and Greens candidates – have much influence on the campaign. Needless to say, everyone is out on the hustings.

Changes to donation laws will restrict the Liberal National Party campaign, in particular, and the conservatives have been hit – again – by internal claims of bullying and sexism, this time from a dumped councillor turned independent candidate. The party machine only works when it works, and these claims may do lasting damage to the LNP ahead of the October state election.

In Townsville, there is another machine in action: Clive Palmer. Following the collapse of his Yabulu nickel refinery, Palmer has clashed with most authorities, including the council and popular mayor Jenny Hill, who he sued for defamation. Now, as he faces criminal charges brought by the Australian Securities Investment Commission, Palmer has seen the need to donate more than $500,000 to former candidate and ex-footballer Greg Dowling’s bid to unseat Hill (having spent $83 million trying to influence the federal election).

While there are undoubtedly Townsville residents hoping Palmer will spend more money in the city, there are also those ratepayers who think he has more money than sense.

With the Queensland economy tanking, these elections will test the theory that there are benefits in being the incumbent. Voters are nervous, so councils that are financially responsible, and responsive to their constituents, will be retained. But those who appear wasteful, and self-indulgent, risk being punished at the ballot box. That will send a message to upper levels of government as well.

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