Cr Glenda Mather is an advocate for freedom of speech. File photo.
Cr Glenda Mather is an advocate for freedom of speech. File photo.

Councillors will keep beating the freedom of speech drum

LIVINGSTONE Shire Councillors have been briefed on social media guidelines introduced partly to protect them from themselves.

On Tuesday councillors attended a briefing session where an item on the agenda was "acceptable media statements by councillors".

The item was not internally driven, rather a product of guidelines introduced last year by Queensland's councillor complaints watchdog, the Office of the Independent Assessor, which was formed in late 2018.

Last year the OIA released social media guidelines designed to protect councillors not only against online abuse and harassment, but also from themselves.

The watchdog's establishment also followed the Crime and Corruption Commission's Operation Belcarra, an inquiry into the 2016 local government elections involving candidates in four south-east Queensland council areas.

Belcarra found widespread non-compliance with legislative obligations relating to council elections and political donations.

After Belcarra, the CCC also investigated allegations of corruption in the Gold Coast City Council.

Those allegations broadly involved possible conflicts of interests relating to decisions on a range of development matters on the Gold Coast.

Late last year, four Livingstone Shire councillors - Adam Belot, Glenda Mather, Tom Wyatt and Pat Eastwood - were subjected to an OIA probe over their handling of Colin and Monica Roebuck's application to subdivide land at Bungundarra Rd.

The OIA investigated after receiving a conflict of interest complaint against these councillors.

All councillors were cleared of any wrongdoing in the matter.

After Tuesday's briefing session, Adam Belot and Glenda Mather, two of the more outspoken councillors at the Livingstone table, continued to beat the freedom of speech drum.

"I believe it's such a precious thing, freedom of speech," Cr Belot said.

"And any time we tamper with that, or go close to trying to overtly control it or regulate it, I believe that's a step in the wrong direction.

"That's my personal viewpoint.

"And elected people, at local government level especially because they do not have the benefit of ­parliamentary privilege, walk a very fine line in trying to be effective and also being conscious of things like not defaming anybody."

Cr Mather said she didn't have a problem working within the guidelines of ­acceptable media statements, but she did have concerns when legislation was ­introduced which effectively suppressed the rights of councillors to state the facts, which the public expects to know.

"Some councillors have difficulty in hearing the truth," she said.

"Local government is supposed to be open, accountable and transparent, but councillors walk the fine line if someone takes offence to hearing the truth. I'm living proof of that."

Cr Mather said this seemed to be the reason for the creation of the OIA.

"There were just too many council complaints originally going to the CCC - the ­government was forced to create a new entity (the OIA) just to concentrate on complaints from local government.

"These people are often and unnecessarily bogged down due to complaints of a trivial natures, and I could name a few.

"More serious complaints alleging corruption still go to the CCC."

Cr Mather said now she'd learnt there was yet another watchdog with the ­introduction of The Independent Council Election Observor.

"The state needs to pay particular attention as to why local governments are creating so much conflict," Cr Mather said.

"There lies the answer."

Footnote: It was Cr Adam Belot who successfully championed last year to get council briefing session agenda items made available to the public for greater transparency.