Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe.
Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe.

‘Outrageous': Council vacancy rule change slammed

BEFORE last week, the path for the runner-up in the Gladstone mayoral race to ascend to the top job was close to impossible.

The sole contender to mayor Matt Burnett, Michael Fearns, won just over 26 per cent of the vote, giving the incumbent a victory of 23425 votes to 8465.

But the state opposition has outlined concern that a change in how vacancies are filled could open the door for second-placegetters to be elevated without an election, regardless of how many votes they get.

Last week, the government's Electoral and Other Legislation Amendment Bill was passed by state parliament.

According to the explanatory notes, "a vacancy arising during the first 12 months after a quadrennial election is to be filled by appointment of a runner-up or, if there is no runner-up who is eligible and consents to the appointment, by by-election".

The state opposition labelled the change as "outrageous" during debate last week.

"Filling the vacancy of a mayoral position during the first 12 months after a quadrennial election with a runner-up is a significant departure from the existing legislation, which states that the position must be filled by way of a by-election," Shadow Minister for Local Government Ann Leahy said.

"What if the departing mayor won with 80 per cent of the vote and the next two candidates had 11 per cent and 9 per cent?

"How could appointing a runner-up be a reflection of the electorate's wishes in those circumstances? They would be appointing somebody who won 11 per cent of the vote."

Cr Burnett labelled the change as "ridiculous".

"The mayor should be democratically elected and we'll be opposing it," he said.

If the government wanted to reduce by-elections, he said that for the Gladstone region, which has no divisions, it would make more sense for the deputy mayor to be elevated and the ninth-placed candidate to step into a councillor role.

"The person who polls ninth has still polled really well, they've only just missed out," he said.

Cr Burnett also noted the change might incentivise people to nominate just to get their name on the ballot paper.

Mr Fearns said that if there was a vacancy, he would be happy to fill the position without going to an election.

"I ran for the job because I feel I can contribute and do a much better job than Burnett," he said.

He would also be happy to go to a by-election and said he's kept his campaign material.

Minister for Local Government Stirling Hinchliffe said the amendment would come into effect on October 12.

"Its aim is to discourage newly elected councillors or mayors from leaving the office to which they have just been elected in the first 12 months of a four-year term, a point particularly salient given council elections and State Government elections are now held seven months apart every four years," he said.

"Councils have also raised with me the expense of by-elections and this amendment avoids that cost shortly after a general local government election."