Why mayor’s joke that ‘Chinese eat cats’ has left council with $50,000 bill

Outspoken Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate has joined the chorus of complaints against the State body that scrutinises the integrity of local councils, claiming one investigation into clumsy comments he made about Chinese people eating cats had already cost local ratepayers around $50,000.

Feb 09, 2022, updated Feb 09, 2022
Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Tate made the colourful comments, that he described as “humour”, outside a disaster management conference in Townsville in March last year.

Urging residents to keep shelters during emergencies pet free, Tate said there were many reasons shelters were for people only.

“You wouldn’t want to put a Chinese next to someone who’s got a cat, you know. She might be breakfast. You’ve got to work those things out,” he said.

He later apologised but is currently being investigated by the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA).

Tate said the system was being clogged with “minor, trivial inappropriate conduct complaints” and the OIA had “overreached” in the matter.

Tate’s attack is one of about 60 submissions to a parliamentary committee inquiry into the performance of the OIA.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles ordered the review after a series of revelations about the conduct of OIA investigators and dozens of complaints from councils and other groups about how it was affecting their work.

Complaints about the OIA included claims one mayor was pursued for alleged misconduct after criticising the government’s vaccine rollout, and journalists were threatened with fines if they did not hand over recordings or notes of interviews with councillors that the OIA was targeting.

In a savage assessment of the OIA’s activities, Queensland’s Property Council said that the OIA was being misused for political purposes, leaving mayors and councillors across the state too scared to meet property developers for risk of being accused of misconduct.

The lobby group said the actions of the powerful disciplinary body were hurting the $41 billion development industry.

“The experience of industry and local government representatives is that the OIA is being bogged down in dealing with frivolous and vexatious complaints,” Property Council executive director Jen Williams said in the submission.

“It is clear that the system is being misused as a political tool by local councillors and members of the public, lodging complaints to cause political harm.”

Tate said 74 complaints had been lodged against him, but not one investigated by the OIA had been upheld.

Defending the accusations had been “a gross waste of ratepayer, and taxpayer, funds,” he said.

Tate, known for his candid and often inelegant commentary, said the investigation into his comments about pets at emergency shelters was unnecessary and costly.

“No community member made a complaint to the OIA yet the OIA commissioner herself took action to refer the matter to our council,” he said.

“Why? Why do that when it appears no one in the community took offence?

“I apologised for some clumsy humour, yet the referral from the OIA to our council has meant around $50,000 has been spent preparing our response.

“Surely, that isn’t what our ratepayers want to see their rates spent on. I would prefer to not even respond to the complaint, but I have to as the process can lead to other action if it is not defended.”

The comments are the latest in a string of accusations of allegedly inappropriate behaviour that the mayor has had to defend before the OIA.

In an earlier case, Tate was also forced to defend his language after he said, “I don’t know what they’re smoking,” about a disgruntled group who were unhappy with a council decision.

In the 2019 matter, a resident complained to the OIA that they were insulted at the suggestion they were taking drugs.

“I was clearly just using the common Australian vernacular to describe the complaints of dozens of people after council had received advice that the position those people had taken in the matter was factually incorrect,” Tate said.

“The OIA chose to entertain this complaint, including investigation and correspondence back and forth with my office, which resulted in a formal decision that I had a case to answer for inappropriate conduct which caused me to seek legal advice in advance of the matter being the subject of a detailed report to Council for final determination.

“The matter dragged on for some months at significant cost before Council dismissed the complaint.”

He said the incident was among a number of complaints in a short timeframe that were “an appalling waste of time and money” that had been investigated by the OIA at a cost to ratepayers of $200,000.

“I look at this as approximately 10 extra shade sails that I could have installed in parks across the city to protect and enhance the amenity of Gold Coast families and in that context, I resent the waste of money,” Tate said.

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