Allegations of corruption against candidates running for local council election in Queensland should be kept under wraps while being investigated, Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) has said.
The CCC has recommended that the Queensland government make it an offence for anyone to publicise corruption allegations against a councillor or candidate in the run-up to elections, in an effort to deter mudslinging and smear campaigns designed to influence election outcomes. The penalty could involve a fine or imprisonment.
In its final report, Publicising Allegations of Corrupt Conduct: is it in the public interest? the Commission said: “In this area in particular, CCC data indicates that a large number of allegations received by the CCC are baseless and merely designed to effect electoral damage on political opponents.”
The CCC noted that the supremacy of the 24-news cycle and social media, meant that “untested allegations of corrupt conduct – almost instantly reaches a mass audience and remains on the public record in perpetuity”.
During its inquiry, the Commission found that the number of corruption allegations aimed at councillors or mayors more than doubled during local council elections in Queensland.
There was an average of 27 allegations per month during election periods in 2008, 2012 and 2016, compared with an average of 12 per month where there was no election on. Of these allegations, 69 per cent could not be classed as a criminal offence or disciplinary breach.
Instead, the Commission said it should be given three months to investigate allegations to test if they had substance.
The CCC said this did not mean that crooked public officials would not get their comeuppance.
“The CCC will continue to prioritise, in the public interest, the assessment and investigation of allegations against councillors, mayors and candidates.
“While there may be a delay while the allegation is investigated and progresses through the court, councillors and mayors who are convicted of a criminal offence may be removed from office.”
But the CCC admitted that balancing freedom of speech with the rights of the individual was a complex act and not all the submissions to the inquiry back its approach but it stuck to its guns.
“The inquiry heard that publicising allegations of corrupt conduct can damage reputations, marriages and careers, and that it can be impossible to escape from that damage.
“The institution of local government, and by extension democratic government, is being damaged by the high number of baseless allegations being made against councillors and individuals seeking election.”
The CCC noted that the impact of reputational damage in rural and remote communities could be more severe because people were often easy to identify and target.
It also argued that it was a bad idea to alert the person who was the subject of the allegations, in case they destroyed evidence, interfered with witnesses or absconded. The Commissio said it could also make it harder to carry out surveillance.
CCC Chairperson Alan MacSporran QC said there were competing views from a cross-section of the community and the four-person panel had carefully considered all the viewpoints.
“Whilst we acknowledge the very important right to the freedom of speech and the need for open and accountable government, based on all the material examined by the CCC we are of the view limiting the publicising of allegations during local government election periods will allow this agency to complete its statutory functions, especially investigating corrupt conduct, in a more robust manner,” MrMacSporran said.
“Consideration was given to all options including not changing the current framework through to a total prohibition similar to other jurisdictions. However, based on the evidence and material considered, the CCC did not determine there was justification for any change except in the local government election context.”
Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) Greg Hallam backed the Commission’s recommendation to make it illegal to publicise allegations of corruption against candidates during local government elections, saying it would help eliminate smear campaigns during elections.
He said the CCC had recognised that allegations against candidates should not be manipulated for electoral gain.
“The recommendations of the report balance the need for an open and transparent election process with ensuring that false or misleading accusations about political opponents are not publicised to the detriment of the community and the council,” Mr Hallam said.
“We commend the CCC for taking into consideration the reputation of councils and the public’s trust in their institutions of government in their balanced recommendations.”
The recommendation does not apply to allegations about Members of Parliament, the Queensland Police Service, public servants, other holders of public office or local government councillors outside an election period.
There were 82 submissions to the inquiry and two public forums.
Parliament will now consider the CCC’s recommendation.