A mayor has accused Queensland’s Office of the Independent Assessor of “going rogue” and empire building after Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced a parliamentary inquiry into the local government watchdog.
Barcaldine Mayor Sean Dillon said he was notified by the OIA earlier this year that he would be investigated for comments he made during a February 17 council meeting where he questioned the ability of the Central West Health Service to manage COVID-19 vaccinations in the LGA.
At the meeting Cr Dillon said he had no confidence that Central West Health would be able vaccinate every resident in Barcaldine and surrounding towns in one day as planned and said “I hope they don’t stuff it up, to be blunt”.
He also criticised the health service for failing to have enough doctors in the region and not being able to guarantee “five minutes before a clinic opens whether there’s even going to be a doctor”.
Cr Dillon said he later received correspondence from the OIA saying he would be investigated for misconduct over his remarks.
Cr Dillon said he had effectively been muted, and if the complaint against him was upheld it would have implications for free speech.
“All I can understand it to be is that they don’t believe it’s within the purview of a mayor or a local government official to make adverse comments around a state government department or agency,” he told Government News on Friday.
CEO of the Local Government Association of Queensland Greg Hallam said the LGAQ “staunchly supported” Cr Dillon’s right to speak publicly about the vaccine rollout in his community.
He said the OIA was “way off the mark” and called on it to withdraw the action and “get back to their important work which does not include pontification on political speech”.
On Friday Ms Palaszczuk told reporters there would be a parliamentary inquiry into the Barcaldine investigation and other complaints against the OIA.
“I have had a conversation with the deputy premier (Steven Miles ) and we feel that it’s time to refer these complaints to a parliamentary committee to conduct an inquiry,” she said.
“The deputy premier will be finalising the terms of reference and he’ll be having more to say on that in coming days.”
The OIA said it understood the need for transparency.
“As a complaints agency the OIA understands that complaints have to be examined transparently and objectively, and it respects the role of a parliamentary committee in conducting this task,” the OIA said in a statement to Government News.
It comes as another public sector watchdog, the CCC, is also under investigation by the Parliamentary Crime and Corruption Committee in relation to an inquiry into former Logan City Councillors.
The councillors were charged with fraud and council was dismissed by the state government before the matter was thrown out of court because of lack of evidence.
Cr Dillon said there was “a flavour emerging” in relation to the scrutiny of local government by watchdog bodies.
“I think there’s a predisposition that in local government you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
He welcomed the the premier’s announcement of a parliamentary inquiry into the OIA.
They’ve been provided with additional resources … to clear a backlog but they’ve brought on a whole lot of new enquiries and didn’t clear one case from the backlog.Sean Dillon
“I think with the opportunity for more scrutiny will uncover a litany of issues that will allow the government to consider refocussing the OIA on good governance and compliance with the local government act, and get away from censuring councillors for passing comments made in a public meeting.”
He said the evidence would show that the OIA has lost its way.
“They’ve been provided with additional resources by the government to clear a backlog but they’ve broadened the scope of their work and brought on a whole lot of new enquiries and didn’t clear once case from the backlog,” he said.
“That demonstrates to me an attempt to build an empire rather than address the issues they were established to do, and that’s a disconcerting direction for an independent agency to take when they have very minimal government oversight.”
LGAQ president Mark Jamieson said the association and members were increasingly concerned about the types of investigations being launched and the time taken to resolve complaints.
“The misconduct investigation launched into Barcaldine Regional Council Mayor Sean Dillon is a clear example of where the system is going wrong,” Cr Jamieson said in a statement on Friday.
He has also previously spoken out about the Logan City investigation saying lives, reputations and careers had been ruined and a duly elected council dismissed.
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