Corruption in politics is not something people find surprising. Indeed corruption is as old as political representation itself. When I took my place in parliament I nominated some straightforward legislative amendments that would reduce corruption at a council and a state level. However at the time, the new government was more interested with perception and maintaining special relationships than considering such reforms. In terms of existing public sector corruption there was a distinct lack of appetite to ‘root it out’.
The last thing I wanted to be accused of was pushing conspiracy theories in Queensland politics. It was important I had strong intellectual grounding. To this end I met with academic Dr Timothy Prenzler from the University of the Sunshine Coast, an international authority on corruption prevention.
Prenzler believed the number of unresolved allegations and suspicions had reached a point where the only way to clear the air was through an Assessment of Reform in Post-Fitzgerald Queensland and new laws to fix the problem for the future.
“Ordinary citizens with a genuine complaint, and government insiders with evidence of unethical conduct, feel they have nowhere to go,” he said.
“Too many genuine complainants and professional stakeholders, including journalists, lawyers and academics believe the Commission has lost its way and is overly focused on organised crime at the cost of public sector misconduct. A big part of the problem concerns perceptions of undue influence and favouritism. For example, there is a widespread view that elected officials are too easily bought through campaign donations and other sources of influence.”
Professor Prenzler also stated that, “the Corruption Commission has conducted public opinion research which consistently shows that 90 percent of Queenslanders want complaints against police, public servants and local government officials to be independently investigated, but by its own admission the Commission investigates less than two percent of complaints”.
My anti-corruption campaign gathered support not just from academics, but from many parts of the community. Numerous individuals became involved, including farmers and business owners. Another supportive group was the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO). The EDO wanted stronger laws because they knew money could buy inappropriate development, whether that was unsustainable mining projects or inappropriate developments in urban areas.
A Game of Mates
Further academic support of the need to tackle corruption came from another academic Dr Cameron Murray. In 2016 he published his book “Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation”. I was happy to speak in support of Dr Murray’s publication in parliament.
Mr PYNE (Cairns—Ind) (3.15 pm): I would like to talk about the new book Game of Mates: How favours bleed the nation by economists Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters. It is the story of how Australia became one of the most unequal societies in the Western world while merely a generat-ion ago it was one of the most equal. It is the story of how a group of mates have come to dominate our corporate and political sectors and have managed to rob us, the Australian majority, of half our wealth.
To understand how the game of mates is played and to disrupt it, we must see Australia through the eyes of our villain, whom we call James. This book is about how the Jameses of this country play
their game of mates. It is about how much their game costs us and it is about what we can do to stop them.
The villain, James, swings no sword. He instead swings his power in the halls of parliament, in the media and in the complex bureaucracies of government and large corporate enterprises. James now robs you of a hefty part of your superannuation. He dodges tax so you pay more. You pay higher interest rates on your mortgage, higher transport costs and higher medical costs, because James and his mates take a cut.
Economist and social scientist Mancur Olson described the process of social decay resulting from what we call the game of mates as ‘institutional sclerosis’. He observed that over time all institutions succumb to the power of special interest groups that impose great economic cost on the community as they reallocate wealth towards themselves.
If any country can rise up and fight the Jameses, it is ours. The authors hope that this book can help in this fight by providing alternatives. Just one alternative is to establish a public competitor to supply the products James sells to reduce his collusive power; set up a state superannuation fund, like other countries do, to compete with the private ones; or set up a state bank. James thrives on the lack of competition, so let us give him some.
James will protest, as the authors personally discovered. He will play dirty. Journalists who wanted to report their research in the areas of property development and infrastructure projects had their jobs threatened. James will tell bald-faced lies. One favourite is that there is already intense competition between superannuation firms and banks.
When pushed, James will enact reforms but twist them again in his favour to ensure any change is superficial, or he may introduce more bureaucratic rules, for land rezoning for example – something only he knows how to navigate, while others do not. The authors argue that James’s gain impoverishes our media, as James’s opinion buys airtime.
Jason, Lyn and Local Government
Late in 2015 I was contacted by two people from the Atherton tablelands, a cattle farmer by the name of Jason Ward and a former consultant and wife of a dairy farmer, Lyn O’Connor. These two people were contacting me in relation to concerns about corruption in local government. Jason and Lyn were very committed to this issue and flew to Brisbane several times to meet me in parliament with documents they wanted me to table on their behalf. I had an understanding of local government processes from my time on Cairns Regional Council and was happy to help them.
A real campaign built around concerns into local government, partly as a result of the work of Jason, Lyn, myself and others. Our campaign would lead to detailed investigative inquiries by experienced journalists, criminal charges and or/prosecutions and eventually law reform.
On 25 February 2016 I delivered this speech to the house:
Mr PYNE (Cairns) (6.44 pm): I was going to rise, as best I can, to speak about Small Business Week, but my heart is heavy. My heart is heavy reflecting on the state of local government in this fine state of Queensland.
During the break between the two sitting weeks I took the opportunity to travel to the University of the Sunshine Coast where I met with Professor Timothy Prenzler. Professor Prenzler is the head of the faculty of criminology and justice at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Professor Prenzler introduced me to the concept of grey corruption. It is a term I have not heard of before. Grey corruption is a term that describes actions that are immoral, unethical and may in some other states be illegal but are not in the state of Queensland.
Professor Prenzler spoke of the large amount of grey corruption in the state of Queensland and so I asked him what the answer was and he said quite simply to lift the bar—to lift the bar, and I was very pleased to hear the Attorney-General speak earlier today. He said that we have to lift the bar so that much of what is now categorised as grey corruption becomes official corruption.
Ways we can raise the bar in this state obviously include legislative change. One such way is to ban donations to political campaigns from property developers, as occurs in New South Wales. That is one very obvious way because it would prevent what I have seen happen on many occasions, and that is developers donating to council campaigns and then that elected council voting in favour of developments from that very donor without declaring a conflict of interest. I have seen that happen on a number of occasions.
Another way the bar could be lifted is by real-time donations. People are going to see many political advertisements over the coming weeks and they are not going to know who paid for them. I think the people of Queensland have a right to know who paid for those ads. But the biggest reform that needs to be made is to remove the amendments made by Minister Crisafulli and the Newman government which enhanced—greatly enhanced—the powers of mayors throughout Queensland.
In the old days we had a respected position of town clerk or shire clerk. Elected councillors and mayors did not instruct and bully staff. That was not allowed. What I am calling for is Westminster principles in local governments so that mayors, sometimes in concert with CEOs, cannot bully staff to breach statutory guidelines for their own self-serving interests.
In 2017 I tabled a document headed ‘Ipswich Inc.” in the Queensland Parliament. The document alleged shocking claims of corruption inside Ipswich City Council. The consequences of the allegations in the documents would be earth-shattering for those involved.
In June 2017 Mayor of Ipswich, Paul Pisasale stepped down from the city’s top job, following Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) officials and police searching his office as part of an unfolding investigation. Police at the time confirmed Mr Pisasale was stopped at Melbourne Airport last month with $50,000 cash, after a one-night trip on official business interstate.
Following Pisasale’s resignation, a fellow Ipswich Councillor Andrew Antoniolli was elected Mayor. However Cr Antoniolli was subsequently charged by the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) with seven counts of fraud.
In August The now former Ipswich mayor Paul Pisasale and his former barrister friend Sam Di Carlo were charged with nine new fraud and corruption offences by the Crime and Corruption Commission. At this point the CCC’s investigation into Ipswich City Council had resulted in 15 people being charged with 86 offences.
In September 2018 the Parliament passed legislation introduced by the new Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe to dismiss Ipswich City Council and appoint an administrator.
The Ipswich City Council former CEO at the time of the corrupt behaviour was later sentenced to five years in jail for corruption. Did I feel vindicated? You bet!
In late 2017 the CCC commenced Operation Belcarra to determine whether candidates had committed offences under the Local Government Electoral Act 2011 that could constitute corrupt conduct. The CCC was also tasked to “examine practices that may give rise to actual or perceived corruption, or otherwise undermine public confidence in the integrity of local government, with a view to identifying strategies or reforms to help prevent or decrease corruption risks and increase public confidence.”
When the Crime and Corruption Commission released its findings, it was clear my claims the issues were wider than Ipswich were confirmed. Indeed CCC chairman Alan MacSporran said local government was a “broken” system, “on the nose” and “a hotbed of perceived corruption”.
The Gold Coast, Logan, Moreton Bay and Ipswich city councils were the first to feel the heat from the CCC. Then more headlines followed this year over new and separate issues involving Logan, Fraser Coast, Gold Coast and Townsville. Logan City Council suddenly sacked its CEO after a tumultuous year. The Fraser Coast Mayor was stood down by the Local Government Minister amid “serial breaches”. And that is not including a string of former council staff who were charged by the CCC across the state.
The CCC issued 31 recommendations to strengthen equity, transparency, integrity and accountability in local governments throughout Queensland. They will create new obligations for candidates, councillors, donors and the ECQ and form the basis of a more stringent regulatory framework. This was good news.
The focus of our campaign was to have an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as existed in New South Wales here in Queensland. Queensland’s CCC was simply not up to the high standards of ICAC.
In 2015, having the CCC as your own ICAC, was a bit like having a poodle as your own fierce watchdog. However, following our campaign the government made changes to improve transparency and accountability.
The Palaszczuk Government finally put legislation before the house in 2017 proposing reforms to the CCC. At the second reading I moved the amendments be made stronger including making hearings public and keeping the more extensive list as to what constituted ‘corrupt conduct’ (as existed in New South Wales). My amendment failed, but at least the government was finally moving (if painfully slowly) in the right direction.
The government also passed several pieces of legislation to improve transparency and accountability in local government. These reforms included changes to the Local Government Electoral Act and the Local Government Electoral Act itself.
The results of our campaign and Operation Belcarra had been to change our laws for the better. This has increased transparency and accountability in the state. Queensland may not be best practice, but we are in a far better position than we were four or six years ago.
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