LNP take over Gold Coast Council by stealth

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Liberal Party MP for Fadden on the Gold Coast, Stuart Robert (Image via abc.net.au)

Former mayoral candidate Penny Toland says the LNP have played Gold Coast residents for fools and developers will be rubbing their hands together with glee.

AFTER WHAT has been described as one of the dirtiest elections in the Gold Coast’s history, the spotlight has turned upon what forces may be at play within the newly elected council chamber.

It's emerged that disgraced former Liberal National Party (LNP) MP Stuart Robert has admitted to funding the election of LNP aligned candidates. Other dubious connections have also recently been revealed, including between big developers and the head of the council planning committee, Cameron Caldwell.

Of course, as this publication reported prior to the election, re-elected Mayor Tom Tate is himself a current developer, as well as a card-carrying member of the LNP, and has been involved in a series of dubious activities that deserve further scrutiny.

When making decisions for the second largest local government authority in Australia, as well as the nation’s sixth largest city, with an annual budget in excess of $1.2 billion, there needs to be a high level of public confidence in our elected representatives.

Not only is this a desirable outcome, it is also required under the law, with the Queensland Local Government Act 2009 stipulating:

‘… transparent and effective processes, and decision-making in the public interest.’

In a city like the Gold Coast, where development is the major industry, the risk of vested interests hijacking our democracy is very high.

In NSW, property developers are prohibited by law from making political donations. The validity of these laws was upheld in the High Court of Australia in October last year, with the judgment warning of:

' … the danger that officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder.'

Such concerns about the influence of those in the property development industry were similarly raised over 25 years ago in a NSW ICAC report, which stated:

'A lot of money can depend on the success or failure of a lobbyist's representations to Government. Grant or refusal of a rezoning application, acceptance or rejection of a tender, even delay in processing an application that must eventually succeed, can make or break a developer. And decisions on the really mammoth projects can create fortunes for those who succeed. The temptation to offer inducements must be considerable.'

So, how does a campaign donation from a developer differ from an inducement? With councillors being the final decision-maker in development application approval, there is much to gain by ensuring those most likely to vote yes on an application are elected.

With this in mind, I now come to media reports this week, which stated that, as a mayoral candidate in this same tainted election, I accepted a $10,000 campaign donation from the CEPU.

Some have implied that this donation is a form of union inducement. Mayor Tate has alleged that I have lied.

It was not and I did not.

Firstly, let me reconfirm what I publicly stated before the election and that was that I would not accept any donations from property developers or their agents.

And so I have not. The same cannot be said for a number of our elected councillors.

Meanwhile, questions have been raised in the last few days about what Mayor Tom Tate knew about the election funding scandal, given the campaigns for the candidates Stuart Robert funded were conducted by the same LNP donor, lobbyist and former Liberal Party staffer who conducted Mayor Tate’s election campaign — Simone Holzapfel.

In response, Mayor Tate said:

I think it’s a bit rude to talk about other people’s campaigns.”

Really, Tom?

Mayor Tate seemed to have forgotten his manners when launching into a self-serving diatribe published in The Australian:

"… the revelation that Ms. Toland took money from union sources is very surprising given that all through the mayoral debates she denied, denied, denied such allegations of union funding, claiming it was her mum and dad who were her campaign donors…some would say she misspoke, but most would say it’s a big mayoral candidate-sized fib."

Mayor Tate must have attended different mayoral debates to the ones I attended. Mind you, he has never been one to let the truth get in the way of a convenient lie.

The truth is that there was not one “allegation of union funding” directed at my campaign. Not one. Indeed, up until nine days before the election, my parents were the biggest donors to my campaign account. At the final mayoral debate, I clearly stated that the last time I had checked my account was the week prior and my parents were still on top.

[Editor’s note: IA attended this debate and the above statement is confirmed.]

While I am extremely appreciative of the $10,000 donation from the CEPU - Electrical Division, it arrived after pre-poll had commenced and all campaign expenses had been finalised. As such, I did not use any of these funds and have since returned the donation in full.

Mayor Tate goes on to tell readers that I “shouldn’t have taken the money from the unions” and questions my ongoing links with the ALP

I am not quite sure why he is questioning my ALP membership when he has stated he was a proud member of the LNP and this is confirmed in his register of interests. Presumably, such principles only apply to others and not to himself.

But back to the donations: how can I have such a vocal objection to developer donations but accept support from a union?

The answer lies in the operation of local government and the powers afforded to elected representatives. It is these powers that dictate when a conflict of interest may arise. The power to decide the outcome of a development application will result in a conflict if you have received support ‒ financial or in kind ‒ from a developer or developer lobbyist.

The outcomes that unions are focused on relate to their members working conditions. The Queensland Local Government Act 2009 creates a separation of powers preventing councillors (including the mayor) from interfering with workers’ conditions. This removes the prospect of a conflict of interest.

Why, then, would this union donate to my campaign? I can only surmise that my history as an advocate for fairness and speaking out against bullying in the workplace makes me a preferable choice for a workers' organisation than someone who berates workers in the media without even speaking to them. I have spoken to many people who have left the Gold Coast Council and all have described a toxic bullying culture within the organisation. While I would not be able to "fix" these internal issues, I would have led by example and treated all staff and fellow councillors with respect, hopefully thereby engendering an organisational culture of respect.

Finally, we come to the influence political parties may have on decision-making within the chamber.

Throughout my mayoral campaign, I made it clear that I was an independent candidate but retained my ALP membership. I was asked about my membership at many forums and always made this clear.

Many asked how, then, can I say I was an independent candidate?

The reason is two-fold. First, I was not endorsed by a political party, meaning I am not bound to any pre-determined policy positions. The second reason is that I received no money or services in kind from the ALP.

Many people asked why did I not seek endorsement and run as a Labor candidate? This was a very important issue to me as it is my personal belief that local government should not involve political parties. And in Queensland, apart from the Brisbane City Council, this is the case (or is meant to be).

Brisbane City Council is different, as it is constituted under different legislation, with the end result being a "government" and "opposition" party — the same system that operates at the state and Federal levels.

The City of Gold Coast is not established in this way. Instead, we have 15 councillors (14 divisional plus a mayor) tasked with representing their divisional areas and with overlapping consideration of the city as a whole. There is not (meant to be) government and opposition blocs battling out party-specific policy agendas.

The checks and balances come from electing people who are free from bound policy positions.

But now, with LNP MP Stuart Robert donating $60,000 to candidates and celebrating the “overwhelmingly positive vote for LNP-aligned candidates”, there are grave concerns about councillors voting as a party bloc.

This is especially the case given Robert said his reason for his donation to the two candidates was because:

“… this is purely about a battle of ideas. I believe our ideas are better. I believe the Liberal National Party view is better.”

More so, given one of the unsuccessful candidates Stuart Robert bankrolled in the election, Felicity Stevenson, is now back working on his staff.

Add in a number of other candidates with campaigns orchestrated by key LNP strategist/developer lobbyist Simone Holzapfel and it is clear that the LNP now runs the Gold Coast Council in all but name.

It should be noted that Mayor Tate repeatedly told journalists and the public prior to the election that his wife Ruth was running his campaign only to now reveal it was, in fact, being conducted by Ms Holzapfel. I wonder where that lies on the "mayoral candidate-sized fib-o-meter"?

Whatever untruths Tom Tate might tell, we can already see the pernicious influence of party politics on this new LNP-dominated Gold Coast Council.

For instance, it is a well-known practice for state and Federal politicians to hire office staff based on party political lines — meaning electorate officers will need to find work elsewhere should their politician lose their seat. This has not been the case in local government, with divisional councillor support staff being public servants employed in a particular division. The question must be asked, then, why new LNP-aligned councillors Herman Vorster and Pauline Young decided to oust their highly experienced personal assistants, who had served with distinction the people of their respective divisions for multiple terms and for various previous councillors.

With new planning laws and the LNP running the council, developers must be rubbing their hands together with glee. Gold Coast City residents, however, who were sold a lie at the last election, may well think differently.

Penny Toland is a scientist and a qualified lawyer. You can follow Penny on Twitter @PennyToland.

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