Most Tasmanian councils in breach of rules for disclosure of gifts and donations

Questions raised about lack of effective oversight by the state government
Published
 August 2, 2021
Published:  August 2, 2021
Hobart Town Hall. Image: Tasmanian Inquirer.

Most Tasmanian councils are in breach of state government regulations that require monthly updates on their websites of all donations and gifts to councillors of more than $50.

A review of the websites of Tasmania’s 29 councils by Tasmanian Inquirer found five have not published a gifts and donations register since the regulations came into effect on August 1, 2018.

The five include the fast-growing urban areas of Glenorchy and Sorell and the smaller regional municipalities of Glamorgan-Spring Bay, Latrobe and Kentish.

Another four councils – Circular Head , West Coast, West Tamar and Meander Valley – have  online gift and donation registers with no content or any indication they are up to date.

Only six councils – Hobart, Huon, Central Highlands, Northern Midlands, Burnie and Wynyard – have updated their gift and donation registers in the past three months.Hobart City Council’s register was updated in July 2021, but the last disclosed gift dates back to September 2019.

The registers for the other 14 of the state’s councils have not been updated recently.

“The problem here is a lack of compliance oversight, for which responsibility rests with the Department of Premier and Cabinet.” Roland Browne

Since August 2018, the state’s 263 councillors have been required to disclose donations and gifts from a single donor with a cumulative value of $50 or more in a financial year.

Councillors must provide details of donations, including their relationship with the donor, to the council’s general manager within 14 days. Failure to disclose can result in a fine of $1,730. General managers are required to publish the register of donations and gifts on the council’s website and update it “at least monthly”.

It is often not clear whether the published registers of many councils are up to date, or whether the lack of new updates is due to no councillors having recently disclosed donations.

For example, the West Coast Council’s website states “there have been no declarations since the amendment of the Act and nothing has been declared for the financial year 2019-2020 to date”. There is no mention of the 2020-2021 or 2021-2022 financial year.

Other councils are far clearer in indicating when their register was last updated. The Flinders Island Council uploads a new disclosure form each month while the Central Highlands Council provides the date the register was last updated even if no new gifts or donations have been disclosed.

The compliance challenge

“The problem here is a lack of compliance oversight, for which responsibility rests with the Department of Premier and Cabinet,” said Roland Browne, a director of Tasmanian Election Inquiry, a group pushing for greater political donations transparency.

“Unfortunately, this government has a poor track record on electoral and other donation disclosure. In February 2021, they promised us an electoral reform bill for state elections in April this year.  We’re still waiting for that.”

Asked what process was in place to ensure compliance with the regulations, the director of local government in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Craig Limkin, said that in March 2020 he reminded council general managers of their disclosure obligations and provided additional guidance.

“Any person who believes that a councillor or general manager has failed to comply with these requirements may submit a complaint to the director of local government or the Code of Conduct Panel, as applicable,” Limkin said.

In April 2020, the state government committed to amending the Local Government Act to expand the disclosure requirements to include all candidates for councils, not just sitting councillors. An exposure draft of the proposed changes has been due since 2020.

The government has flagged that responsibility for ensuring compliance with the councillor disclosure requirements may be transferred from the Department of Premier and Cabinet to the Tasmanian Electoral Commission (TEC).

“Transferring responsibility to the TEC is essential, but the TEC needs to be better resourced to manage this critical oversight,” said Browne.

Tasmanian Inquirer sought comment from the Minister for Local Government, Roger Jaensch, on whether he was satisfied the current processes were working to ensure compliance with the regulations. No response was received.

 

Correction: The original article incorrectly stated the Northern Midlands Council has not published a gifts and donations register. It was last updated in early July. The error has been corrected in the text above. The error occurred as there were no results from either a general Google search or from within the search bar on the council's website for the Gifts and donations register. Nor was there any listing on the 'Council information' page. However, a search for "Gift register" leads to the file in the documents section of the website.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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