The deputy mayor of the Gold Coast has voted in favour of development applications linked to her campaign donors nearly 30 times since the last election, acknowledging a potential conflict of interest each time.
An investigation by Four Corners has revealed that Donna Gates has not left the council chamber on any of the occasions she has declared a “real or perceived conflict of interest” because of donations associated with developers or the property industry.
Councillor Gates declared $174,000 in campaign donations, including tens of thousands from developers and property industry firms, after last year’s local government elections.
She was unopposed at the poll.
“There’s been lots of incidents where a councillor has received significant financial benefit from parties associated with a development, shall we say. And they’ll stay in the room,” Gold Coast councillor Peter Young said.
“Those things do perturb me.”
“The Gold Coast is the epicentre of political donations by developers to local councillors, because that’s where the approvals come from initially,” Steven Gration, from the environmental group Save Our Spit, said.
“It’s at epidemic proportions at the moment.”
Gold Coast Deputy Mayor Donna Gates has declared tens of thousands of dollars in donations from developers. (AAP: Dan Peled)
Unlike in neighbouring New South Wales, developer donations are legal in Queensland and there is no obligation on councillors to abstain on a vote if they declare a conflict of interest.
In Victoria, councillors who receive donations of $500 or more from a person or company “with a direct interest in a matter subject to [a] decision at a council meeting…must declare a conflict of interest at that meeting and leave the room before discussion and voting…takes place.”
Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) has launched an inquiry known as “Operation Belcarra” into last year’s local government elections involving candidates in four south-east Queensland council areas, including the Gold Coast.
Among the inquiry’s terms of reference is to investigate whether candidates “unlawfully influenced a council decision in relation to a development application in favour of a donor”.
As with some other councillors who ran for election in 2016, Cr Gates was called to give evidence regarding how she handled potential conflicts of interest arising out of developer donations.
“I make a declaration of the possibility of a perceived conflict at council meetings,” she replied.
“I have, in the main, stayed in the room to vote in the public interest because I firmly believe that that’s what I need to do.”
Councillors in Queensland are allowed to vote on a donor’s project if they declare a conflict of interest. (ABC Gold Coast: Damien Larkins)
The former city architect for the Gold Coast City Council, Philip Follent, said the rules surrounding potential conflicts of interest involving donors need to be tightened.
“That’s where public disquiet and distrust starts to occur, when, all too often, our councillors are [saying] ‘Well, yes, I’ve received money in my election campaign but I do feel that I can be impartial and vote in the public interest’. It rings hollow,” he said.
Prominent Gold Coast developer, Norm Rix, who donated $7,500 towards Cr Gates’ election campaign, defended the right of developers to contribute to good candidates.
“You can ring Donna up any time of the day or night and she’s there and she knows what you’re talking about,” Mr Rix said.
Gold Coast City councillor Bob La Castra says he would like to see a change to Queensland’s Local Government Act which currently allows councillors to vote on applications by developers they have accepted donations from.
“I think there’s a public perception, rightly or wrongly, that if someone is taking a donation from someone, and then staying in the council chamber to vote on an issue, that that shouldn’t actually happen,” Cr La Castra said.
“My view is the same, that you shouldn’t be doing that.”
Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate declined to be interviewed by Four Corners about developer donations and other issues.
Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate speaks at a Beijing project launch during a trip he says was private. (Supplied)
But when approached by the program after an event, he said he complied with laws relating to donations.
“The best I can tell you is that on my side I don’t receive any donation, I’m self-funded,” he said.
Four Corners can also reveal that Mr Tate spoke at the Chinese launch of a Gold Coast mega tower during a private visit to Beijing last month.
The $1.2 billion Spirit Tower at Surfers Paradise is being built by the Chinese developer Forise Holdings and is being promoted by Tony Hickey, a close friend whose legal firm has represented Mr Tate.
“Regarding my recent private trip to China, it was private,” Mr Tate said in a statement to Four Corners.
“All my overseas mayoral missions are publicly documented as per the Local Government Act.”
While describing the visit as private, a photograph obtained by Four Corners shows Mr Tate speaking at the Beijing project launch in front of a banner describing him in Chinese as the Gold Coast mayor.
Cr Young said the mayor should clarify what his private visits to China entail.
“[The Chinese] do have enormous regard for political figures. Enormous. And no-one more so than a mayor,” Cr Young said.
“So there’s the capacity to open doors, which may be seen as a good thing. But it depends who the beneficiaries of that door-opening is. And I think that probably warrants further analysis.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she would wait for the CCC report before considering possible reforms.
“I’m looking forward to seeing that report when he finishes his investigation and I’ve made this commitment and I’ll say it again today: that we will move swiftly, my Government will move swiftly to look at any recommendations that he makes,” she said.