Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) head Walter van der Merwe has resigned, two days after being suspended for allegations of serious misconduct. Current ECQ Assistant Electoral Commissioner Dermot Tiernan will be Acting Electoral Commissioner.
In a short statement, Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath said Mr van der Merwe “has delivered his resignation to the Governor this morning … Acting Electoral Commissioner arrangements are already in place and a recruitment process will begin shortly. In the meantime, the allegations against Mr van der Merwe will be investigated to finalise the issues raised.”
Mr van der Merwe was suspended from duties by the Queensland Government on 13 February after Ms D’Ath said there were “serious allegations” against him “which could amount to misbehaviour under Section 25 of the Electoral Act 1992.” She was not any more specific than that, other than to say that they did not amount to inappropriate interference in the outcome of elections.
In 2017 Mr van der Merwe was the first witness to be called before the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission’s (CCC) Operation Belcarra, initiated after serious concerns about corruption in the 2016 Queensland local government elections.
He said then that there were a significantly higher number of complaints about that election than in previous elections, but that he did not know why that was the case. He said the ECQ lacked the resources to properly investigate all allegations.
A Parliamentary Inquiry into the elections, chaired by former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley, handed down a report in June 2017 which was extremely critical of the ECQ.
“Throughout the inquiry’s process of reviewing the ECQ’s conduct, and during many staff interviews, it became apparent the management style within the ECQ is authoritarian and lacks consultation, consensus and integration. The culture is one of insecurity and avoidance, with poor staff engagement and communication.”
Report recommended many changes to the ECQ’s culture and structure. Mr Soorley, in an interview with the ABC after the release of the report, was even more scathing. He said the ECQ’s own internal review “glossed over many issues and problems within the organisation.”
“Senior management staff often did not attend, or would leave early from, important meetings regarding election issues and planning.
“The review panel was unable to meet with electoral commissioner Walter van der Merwe on his own, as he was always accompanied by the assistant commissioner who took the lead on responding to most issues. Their interactions and behaviour had the semblance of ‘good cop, bad cop’ management style.”
Mr van der Merwe was appointed to the $300,00 job by the former Newman Government in 2014. A native of Zimbabwe and a graduate from South Africa’s University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He migrated to Australia in 1989 and had a quick rise in the Queensland public service, serving as Executive Director of Corporate Capability with the Department of Premier and Cabinet from 1993 to 2010.
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