Time for political parties to step up as Ipswich Council faces the sack

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City of Ipswich Mayor Andrew Antoniolli stood down following fraud charges (Image via ipswichfirst.com.au).

Council corruption will continue to thrive as long as political parties are represented in name only and the mainstream media look the other way, writes Bernie Dowling.

IT'S DOLLARS TO DOUGHNUTS Ipswich City Council (south-west of Brisbane) will be sacked within the week.

Mayor Andrew Antoniolli stood down a day after the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) charged him with seven counts of fraud. Cr Antoniolli allegedly used ratepayer funds over six years to buy charity auction items.

Acting Ipswich Mayor Wayne Wendt said Council would appeal the show-cause notice issued by Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe. The Council has Buckley's chance of winning that appeal. 

Two former mayors and two former CEOs are among 12 people charged with 66 counts after last year’s CCC "Operation Belcarra" investigation. Antoniolli’s predecessor Paul Pisasale is facing serious charges including corruption, extortion and assault.

Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk might have quipped, after Wilde: To lose one mayor may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness'.

But, as both Antoniolli and Pisasale were Labor Party members, though running as Independents, Ipswich Council is no laughing matter but a major embarrassment for the Premier and the party. Ms Palaszczuk said meekly 'the people of Ipswich had lost confidence in the Council'.

Ipswich is an old coal-mining city and Labor has held political sway since — well, forever. Paul Pisasale joined the party shortly before he was first elected to Council in 1991. When he became Mayor as an independent in 2004 he, still a party member, promptly announced there was no place for party politics in local government.

That view, unfortunately, is shared by most of Queensland and candidates, running as Independents, can align themselves with parties to tap into resources for campaigns but the parties have no control over their decisions once they are elected.

Not that Liberal-National Party (LNP) or Labor Party governments have had much inclination to rein in rogue councils. Former Labor Member for Cairns Rob Pyne and Member for Bundamba Jo-Ann Miller both raised serious issues about councils only to be rebuked by Premier Palaszczuk, who was mightily offended by suggestions she ignored their continual warnings.

Pyne resigned from the party and unfortunately lost his seat at the last election.

Conservative Courier-Mail journalist Steven Wardill wrote:

‘Deputy Premier Jackie Trad was right about Rob Pyne. The Cairns MP really is the treacherous type.’

The Courier-Mail wrote up Pyne’s prophetic messages about a bent Ipswich City Council while at the same time shooting the messenger:

Jo-Ann Miller continues to hang on to Labor endorsement as the Member for Bundamba and had raised the possibility of contesting the next mayoral ballot.

I believe the reasons State governments overlook councils behaving badly is they do not want political brawls and they like to deal with stable councils – no councillor has lost office in Ipswich since 2000. Perhaps even more importantly, large councils have access to lots of ratepayer money to share the costs of infrastructure and other major projects.

Now it is at a stage that the Queensland Government has to take action.

After Antoniolli’s departure, five of the ten remaining (for a little while) Ipswich Councillors are Labor Party members.

In my Council area of Moreton Bay Region, most Councillors are aligned with the Liberal-National Party while two are Labor members. All ran as Independents. I asked one of the Labor Party members why she shared a billboard with conservatives at the last election and she angrily told me not to bring politics into it.

It’s time for parties to run at local government elections to bring proper governance to councils. Organised ratepayer groups supporting councillors could be viable alternatives to parties. The temptations to do the wrong thing or turn a blind eye are too strong for most councillors in the present set-up.

Neither Labor nor the LNP can afford to run local government campaigns with the current meagre public support of a $1,000 tax deduction for candidates. Though there are more creative, less expensive ways to campaign, reform will require more public funding. If that seems unappetising, the alternative is accepting corruption in local government.

Mainstream media shirks its public duties

I was working for the long-running Ipswich paper The Queensland Times in the late 1990s when its Council reporter was booted under police guard from a Council meeting.

Council did not like the reporter’s coverage, particularly a story of how the then Mayor voted for a development by a major campaign donor. "I forgot," the Mayor said about the error, and my colleague reported it as such.

The Queensland Times editor contacted Council and was told the paper could send any reporter to cover meetings except the regular one.

To the next meeting, the editor sent the regular reporter, a second reporter and a photographer to cover any altercation. The Council caved in.

During the 2000s I was working at the Pine Rivers Press, which was still robustly reporting on Council matters. One of my stories on two Councillors and electoral donations made the front page. Another Councillor said to me, "I hope I don’t make the front page of the Pine Rivers Press".

In the 2010s, I was punted from covering Council issues. I asked the editor why and all he said was that it was his decision.

There is some argument that the local media should not involve itself in controversial political matters but State media cannot cover all the councils. If the local press shirks its duties, or worse, becomes an agent for flattering councillors, corruption and theft from the public purse thrive like mushrooms in the dark.

Bernie Dowling is the author of the new release non-fiction book, 'Maaate! Bribe-Proofing the Public Purse Against Good Blokes'. You can follow Bernie on Twitter @bentbananabooks.

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