By HARRY CLARKE
THE boss of Queensland’s under-fire council watchdog has spoken publicly for the first time about controversy surrounding her organisation, and the widespread perception it continually overreaches when investigating complaints.
Kathleen Florian, head of the Office of the Independent Assessor, was a guest speaker at the Local Government Association of Queensland’s annual conference in Mackay this afternoon.
Her speech on the topic “Conflicts Done Better” comes just days after Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced the IAO would be hauled before a parliamentary inquiry amid mounting criticism it was pursuing merely frivolous and vexatious complaints against councils.
There’s no issue with councillors raising concerns, but until we get some certainty I just ask that you to consider how you raise your concern.Kathleen Florian, Independent Assessor
The Premier’s decision followed widespread publicity and subsequent criticism of several controversial investigations by the OIA, including its allegation of potential misconduct against the Barcaldine mayor after he simply questioned the State Government’s ability to effectively vaccinate residents in his outback region. READ THE FULL COUNTRY CALLER STORY HERE.
Asked at the LGAQ conference whether launching investigations over seemingly trivial matters threatened councillors’ will to speak freely, Ms Florian refused to comment on individual matters which would be subject to the parliamentary inquiry.
But she said “in a more general sense”, the tribunal process which the OIA referred misconduct complaints was yet to determine the parameters in which councillors could exercise freedom of political expression.
“I’m really keen to speak to that (implied right of free political speech) when the inquiry occurs, but it’s not appropriate or respectful to either councillors or complainants to enter in a public forum on the rights or wrongs of a matter which is the subject of an investigation,” Ms Florian said.
“Through various High Court decisions it’s been held that there’s an implied freedom of political communication which exists as part of the system of representative government which is established by the Constitution.
“As the High Court has made clear, however, the implied freedom of political communication is not a personal right of free speech – it is a restriction on legislative power.
“The issue for us here is that we don’t yet understand how the implied right of political speech works with the Code of Conduct and other provisions within the Act, which are expressed in very broad terms.
“How these things interact is something that we have no case law on. We have not got any decisions that have been decided on by the tribunal in this context here.
“When there is a lack of clarity, what can you do? The first thing is that you can look at law reform if it’s appropriate, or secondly you look at advancing cases to the council of conduct tribunal, which helps us to get that understanding.
“There’s no issue with councillors raising concerns, but until we get some certainty I just ask that you consider how you raise your concern, that’s the issue.”