Laws 'a threat to local democracy'
A SENIOR Gympie councillor yesterday branded new local government laws “an attack on representative democracy” and an “unworkable” burden on councillors.
Council Planning Committee chairman Ian Petersen said the new Local Government Act would force councillors to lie in support of policies they disagreed with.
It also included financial interest provisions so wide ranging that they would be impossible to obey.
The rules would effectively make all councillors outlaws, vulnerable to prosecution any time the government found them annoying.
He said rules outlawing councillor dissent, except at council meetings, would attack the information rights of citizens, particularly the “very basic right to be able to assess whether and how effectively their elected representative is representing them”.
Cr Petersen told this week’s general meeting of council the new Act would require councillors to declare a material personal interest and leave the meeting if a council decision affected the financial interests even of distant relatives and even if councillors did not know what those interests were.
Councillors could be prosecuted for failing to declare interests they did not and could not know about and not knowing would not be counted as an excuse.
“I strongly support the notion that our own pecuniary interests and those of our immediate family living with us should be a matter of public record,” he said, adding that this should also apply to the assets of distant relatives where these were self evident or on the public record.
“However I do not believe it is possible to know details of pecuniary interests for extended family members, some with whom we have had no contact for many years.
“They could be day traders on the share market, making it impossible to keep current our record of their share portfolio.
“We are told lack of knowledge is no defence, making us vulnerable if we are unable to discover the information, or are provided with inaccurate or incomplete information.
“We should be absolutely meticulous in ensuring that we avoid any material personal interest or conflict of interest breaches,” he said, but said disclosing financial information of non-dependent relatives to a third party “would appear to conflict with the Privacy Act.”
Cr Petersen said the requirement for councillors to publicly support council decisions they may disagree with was a requirement that they be dishonest.
“I would be very concerned to be gagged and I will not be,” he said. “I am not for a minute suggesting that a councillor should be free to set out deliberately to sabotage and denigrate council (but) it has gone way too far and is now a real threat to representative democracy. To go out to sell to the public an outcome about which we are strongly opposed is dishonest and hypocritical.”
Councillors resolved to seek a redrafting of the new laws.