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Meet the outback mayor accused of misconduct after daring to criticise Qld Health

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A state agency’s extraordinary pursuit of an outback mayor for potential misconduct after he questioned actions by Queensland Health has prompted the peak body for local councils to vow to take the state to the High Court if necessary to guarantee the right to free speech.

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The Office of the Independent Assessor has Barcaldine Mayor Sean Dillon in its sights over comments he made at a February council meeting critical of Queensland health’s vaccine rollout for the region.

Mayor Dillon told the meeting he had “no confidence” in the approach of the local Central West Hospital and Health Service to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

“I just hope they don’t stuff it up because it’s the thing that we need to try and restore confidence in businesses and community events,” he told the meeting.

The OIA, set up as a watchdog on alleged council misbehaviour by the Palaszczuk Government several years ago, wrote to him in April saying he was reasonably suspected of inappropriate conduct for the remarks.

However, it has yet to resolve its investigation despite Mayor Dillon lodging a vigorous defence citing political freedom of speech.

Now the Local Government Association of Queensland says it is prepared to take the issue to the High Court.

LGAQ chief executive Greg Hallam said the right to political speech was implied in the Australian Constitution.

He said the OIA and its chief Kathleen Florian was “well wide of the mark” and its reaction to Mayor Dillon’s comments “did not pass the pub test”.

“The vaccine rollout is discussed on a daily basis by politicians at all levels and on all sides of government,” he said.

“It would literally be mentioned hundreds of times a day in the Queensland media.”

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the probe was “ridiculous” and Dillon had done a great job promoting the rollout in Barcaldine.

“It’s a bit of a storm in a teacup, I don’t think what he said was unusual,” she told reporters on Wednesday.

“I think it’s a bit ridiculous but that’s a matter for the Independent Assessor, but you know those comments I think were made earlier this year, and they’ve had great vaccination rates out there and the Mayor, Sean, I know him, he’s done a great job.”

Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the state government supported the rights of councillors to speak freely, but it did not control the OIA as it was an independent statutory body.

“If anyone has concerns about the actions of the OIA, they should raise those concerns with the Queensland Ombudsman,” he said

Liberal National Party integrity spokeswoman Fiona Simpson said the reports about Dillon were “deeply concerning” as elected officials should be free to express their views on policies without fear of prosecution.

She said the mayor was merely pointing out some possible logistical difficulties about the vaccine rollout in the Barcaldine region.

“I fear there is a genuine risk being posed to our democracy,” Ms Simpson said in a statement.

“I fear the Office of the Independent Assessor is being used to strong-arm elected officials who hold contrary views to the current Queensland government.”

“I fear the actions of the OIA are authoritarian which doesn’t represent who we are as a society.”

-with AAP

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