’Toothless’ election watchdog puts bite on ‘misleading’ claims
ALLEGATIONS by a candidate that Noosa Council mislead the community over its handling of the draft Noosa Plan and its approach to short-term letting have been rejected by the ‘fake news’ election watchdog, set up by the Local Government Association of Queensland.
Independent Council Election Observer John Robertson instead found the statements made by candidate Amelia Lorentson on her Facebook posts regarding the draft Noosa Plan as “misleading” and issued her with a stern warning.
“The ICEO is not prepared to hold Ms Lorentson was deliberately misleading, but hopefully she will think carefully in the future before attacking the council in such an unfair way,” Mr Robertson said in his findings.
The retired judge was acting on a complaint made to the ICEO by Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington, relating to four Facebook posts made on December 13.
Cr Wellington has hailed Mr Robertson’s finding as a timely warning for all candidates not to misrepresent council positions on local issues, but a defiant Ms Lorentson has labelled the ICEO’s office as a “toothless tiger” which would not silence her concerns.
Cr Wellington said: “On reading the social media posts, I discovered that Ms Lorentson had not only impugned the integrity of staff but also the Noosa councillors, claiming that they had breached the Councillor Code of Conduct.
“In my role as mayor, I take responsibility for maintaining the good reputation of the council. Thus my decision to refer this matter to the ICEO.
“I have no problem with robust debate during an election campaign. Indeed, such debate is vital to democracy. However, it is a different matter if candidates make unsubstantiated claims about council and councillors that have no basis in fact,” Cr Wellington said.
Ms Lorentson said the ICEO “is not established pursuant to Queensland legislation and has no legal authority to compel any individual or council to co-operate with it.”
She said the ICEO website states the body is funded by the LGAQ and “has been set up by LGAQ to operate at arms length”.
“The LGAQ is owned by councils and led by councils. It’s president is (Sunshine Coast) Mayor Mark Jamieson,” Ms Lorentson said.
“It was created because in my opinion, mayors and councillors did not like to be criticised.
“Because the ICEO was created by this group, it has no power and has been referred to as a toothless tiger.
Ms Lorentson said Mayor Wellington’s attempts to silence her “will not work”.
And she preffered the opinion of Queensland Law Society’s Bill Potts who did not believe the Noosa short-term stay measures were fair for creating a two-tier property ownership system.
The ICEO website says it “will refer serious cases of misconduct and legislative breaches” to the Electoral Commission of Queensland, the Office of the Independent Assessor and the Crime and Corruption Commission of Queensland.
Ms Lorentson’s posts that concerned Mayor Wellington were “template letters authored by Ms Lorentson for constituents to send to the Minister for Local Government (posted at 13.12pm), the Minister for Tourism, the Premier and the Minister for Planning.
“Cr Wellington alleges that the posts contained false and misleading statements concerning the new draft Noosa Plan which had been approved at a special council meeting on 11 December 2019.
“He alleges that the statements that are false and/or misleading are:
a) That the process leading up to the approval was lacking;
b) There was a lack of economic impact statement;
c) Submitter submissions were “not considered”;
d) No legal opinion was sought regarding “existing” use provisions.
“As well, in the post relating to the Minister for Local Government, candidate Lorentson also alleged there had been a breach of the Code of Conduct of Councillors in Queensland relating to council’s ‘obligation to provide detail required for democratic representation, social inclusion, and meaningful community engagement’.
“Cr Wellington alleges that this claim is false.”
After a lengthy investigation which included responses from Ms Lorentson and Cr Wellington, the ICEO, dismissed her allegations.
“As a well-informed candidate for office as a member of the council, candidate Lorentson should be aware of the potentially serious reputational damage of alleging in a Facebook post to the minister responsible for formulating the Code of Conduct that there had been a breach of that code,” Mr Robertson said.
“To say that, without any proper particulars is misleading in the opinion of the ICEO.”
“It is evident candidate Lorentson has strong views on the short-term accommodation issue in the shire and strongly disagrees with the council’s position.
“All candidates should be encouraged to debate issues robustly if necessary,” Mr Robertson said.
He found however, “it is another thing to make bald and simplistic statements in posts on Facebook where those statements are at best unfair and misleading”.
“It is clear to the ICEO that council has taken this issue seriously and, in his opinion, has complied with the law and undertaken consultation with the community in a comprehensive manner,” Mr Robertson said.
“It is also clear that, when she made these posts, candidate Lorentson was upset at council’s position, but that does not justify making posts which are generally misleading.
“The posts, the subject of the review, are misleading, especially the ones alleging that council had not followed due process in relation to the issue of short-term accommodation and that submissions were not considered.”
Mr Robertson said the ICEO also “regards very seriously the allegation to the responsible minister that council had breached the Code of Conduct for Councillors.
“This is a particularly serious allegation to make without cause, in the course of an election campaign,” he said.