Anonymous council criticism given short shrift

New fact-checking body dismisses anonymous claims against Etheridge, Tablelands councils

Image - Shutterstock

Image - Shutterstock


Anonymous leaflets making potentially defamatory statements about the operations of Etheridge and Tablelands shires are among 91 review requests lodged with a newly-established local government fact checking body.


Anonymous leaflets making potentially defamatory statements about the operations of Etheridge and Tablelands shires are among 91 review requests lodged with a newly-established local government fact checking body.

Launched last December and described as the first of its kind in Australian electoral history, the Independent Council Election Observer has advised voters that the claims in both letters should be treated with scepticism.

The advice was provided by former District Court judge John Robertson, who heads the ICEO, which is funded by the Local Government Association of Queensland but set up to operate at arm's length from that body.

Requests can only be lodged by candidates, councillors or council administrators, and it was current Etheridge Shire mayor Warren Devlin who alerted the body to a letter intercepted by the postmaster in the Gulf community.

According to Mr Robertson, the nature and contents of the communication, titled Pondering Points for the Voters of Etheridge Shire Council, gave the postmaster reason to withhold it, pending legal advice.

"The letter contains quite detailed criticisms about the council in relation to a number of projects and issues. It is anonymous," Mr Robertson said.

"Despite the actions of Australia Post, the mayor informs me the letter was mailed to a small number of residents and its contents have been spread via emails and social media.

"He says that the claims in the letter are false and defamatory and that he has referred the matter to the police."

Mr Robertson said because postal voting had already begun when he was made aware of the letter, and because his office didn't have the resources to investigate each and every claim, he decided the best way to deal with it was by warning shire voters to be very wary about the criticisms it made.

"This is because the author of the letter has chosen to remain anonymous and not be prepared to be open and be subject to criticism and challenge over the many criticisms contained in the document," he said.

"The dissemination of anonymous election material so close to an election is completely contrary to the fundamental feature that should underpin our democratic process at election time, and that is that debate and criticism should be open and fair."

He said that for that reason alone the claims made in the letter should be treated with scepticism by voters.

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Likewise, detailed criticisms in an anonymous document titled Paronella/Mellick Council 2016-2020 Was this a good council? distributed to businesses within the Tablelands Regional Council local government area and possibly wider, has been dismissed for the same reason.

The review request was lodged by CEO Justin Commons, who was of the view that there may be defamatory statements relating to particular councillors and staff named in the document or identifiable by their position.

Once again citing limited resources for not being able to investigate all the letter's claims, Mr Robertson said he had decided to deal with it by warning the region's voters to be very wary about the criticisms made.

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Inquiries relating to Cassowary Coast, Douglas, Scenic Rim, Southern Downs and South Burnett councils were among the 76 requests dealt with.

That represents about 27 per cent of Queensland's 77 local government areas.

According to Mr Robertson, the majority of requests have involved allegedly false and misleading claims posted on Facebook - in posts or comments about and/or by candidates.

"Not just candidates' own pages but some pages set up with, in my view, dubious intent, often administered anonymously.

"There's also been a couple of requests challenging comments made in newspaper articles and a few relating to campaign materials.

"One finalised case related to a radio interview, another a videoed interview posted on Facebook."

A spike in the number, nature and extent of attacks on individuals and councils in the 2016 local government poll was the catalyst for the LGAQ to consider setting up the fact checking unit.

"Allegations of misconduct and corruption (were) swirling, with social media providing, for the first time, multiple platforms on which strikes against individuals were launched and outlandish campaign claims aired," Mr Robertson said.

"My stipulation when I was approached to head it up was that I would only accept the position if I was assured that I would have complete independence - complete autonomy. That has proven to be the case."

Because it's not operating under any Queensland legislation, Mr Robertson has no legal authority to compel anyone to cooperate with him, or discipline anyone he finds making false, misleading or malicious comments.

"I have no idea whether this model or a variation of it will be used for future elections," he said. "I'm sure the value of the work my team and I have undertaken will be reviewed in due course."

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