Putting the Brakes on Vexatious Complaints

Vexatious claims will be dismissed

Over the last few years in Queensland there has been an increase in complaints lodged with the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) against councillors. Some have been dismissed quickly. Others have taken years to resolve. 

Statutory meetings have virtually ground to a halt as councillors take an overly cautious approach to conflict of interest (COI) declarations.

In response, Queensland Government reforms passed late last year will make it easier for councillors to participate in meetings without fear of being the subject of COI claims or bullying complaints. 

This means more effective and efficient meetings and decisions for the community.

These days, baseless complaints alleging COI are able to be dismissed quickly. Complaints alleging bullying during debate and discussion are being dismissed by the OIA, particularly when investigators are able to view recordings of live-streamed meetings and of course interview staff who were present at the meetings. 

These findings uphold the principle that expressing a different point of view during debate or discussion is not bullying. 

Full disclosure: In June 2018, I participated in a unanimously approved round of community grants, including one for $2000 for a volunteer community group to place a ring of stones in a public park outside a community kindergarten. To summarise: The grant was never eventually awarded, but over a year later in the lead up to the 2020 elections a COI complaint against me was lodged with the OIC. What followed was a three-and-a-half year process and consideration of 271 pages of evidence. The full details of this case can be found under a separate article here.

Kindy-gate” must have incurred significant expenditure of taxpayer resources and illustrates how right throughout Queensland COI accusations of historical events can be used in attempts to cause personal and professional harm. In fact, a Parliamentary Enquiry into the Councillor Conduct regime has considered hundreds of similar examples.

Fortunately, with the new legislation there is a time limit in place for claims of misconduct:

A complaint about the suspected conduct of a councillor must be reported to the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) within one year from when the conduct occurred, or within six months after the conduct comes to the knowledge of the complainant but within two years after the conduct occurred.

Last year the Queensland Government introduced a Bill to Parliament (The LOCAL GOVERNMENT (COUNCILLOR CONDUCT) AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL), which passed into law on 22 November 2023, after it was found the process was clogged with vexatious or trivial complaints used in attempts to cause personal or professional harm.

They were said to not only be injurious to the subjects of those complaints, but were seen to be a gross waste of the resources of the OIA. 

Serial complainants can now be ignored or prosecuted.

An excerpt of the Bill, tabled on 23 September by now-Premier Stephen Miles, reads:

Finally, the assessor must dismiss a complaint where the person making it has been declared a vexatious complainant. Recommendations 28 and 29 of the report addressed concerns from several stakeholders, particularly the Local Government Association of Queensland, that the complaints system has been used improperly by some complainants to inflict personal or political harm. The bill provides that the assessor may declare a person as a vexatious complainant for up to four years where they have repeatedly made complaints under chapter 5A of the Local Government Act 2009.

To meet the threshold, at least three of the complaints must have been dismissed by the assessor

as having been frivolous or vexatious complaints or have been made in anything other than good faith.

The assessor may publish a notice stating that the named person has been declared a vexatious complainant. 

The bill also provides a discretion for the assessor to dismiss a complaint or to decide to not take further action in a number of other scenarios, including if the conduct is being dealt with by another entity, if investigation would involve an unjustifiable use of resources, or if there is insufficient information to properly investigate. 

In addition, the assessor may decide to take other action, such as giving a warning or recommending the councillor undertake training, counselling or mediation if it is considered more appropriate in the circumstances.

The OIA’s website puts the Law, and how it is implemented by the OIC, succinctly:  

The OIA may deal with complaints by dismissing them on assessment as vexatious, frivolous or not made in good faith.

It may also prosecute a person in the Magistrates Court over a single vexatious complaint.

Under changes to the legislation on 22 November 2023, the OIA has the power to make a vexatious declaration against a person.

So what does this mean for Council now, and more particularly for the incoming Mayor and Councillors?

I believe that conflicts of interest ought to be declared and that respectful and robust debate has a very real place in Noosa Council meetings. 

If elected as the new Mayor of Noosa, I will encourage councillors to help their colleagues to be aware of potential conflicts of interest before meetings, encourage respectful and robust discussion, and ensure that all views are heard and acknowledged. 

Frank Wilkie

Frank Wilkie
Deputy Mayor, Noosa Council

0413 530 587
PO Box 117, Peregian Beach Qld 4573