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How state's election watchdog sounded the alarm on 'chilling' new integrity laws


Queensland’s election watchdog has warned proposed law changes will have a “chilling effect” on its perceived ability to oversee free and fair elections.

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A bill before state parliament would allow for reviews of public entities, including direct access to premises and documents.

The Electoral Commission of Queensland wants to be excluded from such reviews, like other statutory bodies including the Crime and Corruption Commission and the Queensland Audit Office.

ECQ commissioner Pat Vidgen says the “intrusive” changes threaten the independence and impartiality of his organisation.

“The ECQ supports and welcomes appropriate external scrutiny of its operations and notes that provisions for administrative reviews currently exist under the Public Service Act 2008,” Vidgen wrote in his submission.

“However, the review powers are significantly more intrusive than current provisions… granting powers to the minister or the Public Sector Governance Council to commence a public sector review of the ECQ could present a real or perceived threat to the ECQ’s independence.”

An inappropriately-timed review could undermine public confidence in ECQ’s perceived ability to conduct free and fair elections, he said.

“(It could) at best undermine the independence of the ECQ and, at worst, result in a chilling effect on the ECQ discharging its important regulatory and compliance functions,” Vigden said.

The proposed changes could allow access to sensitive and confidential information on candidates and donors collected by the ECQ.

Vidgen acknowledged the need for oversight, but he said any reviews must be proportionate and safeguarded against misuse.

“An example of this would be a review initiated by an incoming government immediately following an election which could give rise to access to electoral materials, stakeholders, and political parties,” he told a parliamentary committee on Monday.

“I would think this possibility would be of concern towards all stakeholders.”

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the ECQ would remain independent and that was the expectation of Queenslanders.

“Now in relation to this legislation my understanding is that it’s currently before the committee and the ECQ was consulted before it went to the committee as well as part of our government consultation,” she said.

“Of course we’ll listen very closely to what the committee says, and I understand what the ECQ’s saying, but it’s before the committee, we look forward to the report.”

The Queensland Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Discrimination Commission have also argued against their inclusion in such reviews to protect their independence.

“I agree with the comments of the Electoral Commission, that it would have a chilling effect on the work that the Commission perhaps not so much myself as Commissioner, but for commission staff or permanent employees of the public service,” Anti-discrimination commissioner Scott McDougall said.

The proposed legal changes follow the review of government accountability and culture by former public administrator and academic Professor Peter Coaldrake.

His report highlighted a tolerance for bullying among public servants and a reluctance to deviate from the perceived official government line.

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