Barcaldine Regional Council Mayor, Cr Sean Dillon, has pushed back against an investigation by the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) into his alleged misconduct in expressing concerns over the vaccine roll-out in his electorate.
At a local government meeting in February, Cr Dillon raised concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in his community, stating he was ‘“very worried” health officials would not be capable of administering enough vaccines in the region in the short time frame that was proposed at the council meeting.
In response to a discussion involving the rollout of the vaccines at a local town hall, and questions surrounding accessibility and possible mobility issues for the community, Mayor Dillon said, “I’m sorry but I’ve got no confidence in them”, and “to think they’re going to do it in one pass, someone who’s got no idea in regional Queensland. Like it’s just not going to work”.
In response to Cr Dillon’s comments, a complaint was submitted to the OIA. The ABC reported that the OIA said it was alleged the remarks “tended to undermine public confidence” in the health service and vaccination program, and making the comments publicly during a pandemic “did not demonstrate high-quality leadership”.
The OIA also alleged it considered that “this is a matter that should have been addressed directly with the CWHHS in the first instance, rather than in an open meeting of council”.
Cr Dillon has disputed the validity of these claims, describing the case against him as “a farcical, protracted, way overblown storm in a teacup”.
“I was unequivocally clear that the only path out of this pandemic was with this vaccine and we needed to make sure that all communication was clear about that and relied on generic, cleared HHS communication channels, not try to make our own up because otherwise there could have been a disconnect between the two,” Mayor Dillon said.
“I respect the right of the person who made the complaint to make the complaint, but the OIA should have realised this for what it was.”
The Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) CEO, Greg Hallam, said the LGAQ staunchly supported Mayor Dillon’s right to speak publicly about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in his community.
Mr Hallam said it was the same right enjoyed by every other citizen.
“For that matter, the right to political speech is implied in the Australian Constitution,” Mr Hallam said.
“The vaccine rollout is discussed on a daily basis by politicians at all levels and on all sides of government. It would literally be mentioned hundreds of times a day in the Queensland media.”
Mr Hallam said Mayor Dillon was “thoughtful, measured and highly articulate” and was “simply seeking to represent his community, as mayors must do”.
Mr Hallam said the LGAQ was prepared to take the matter to the High Court if needed.
The LGAQ said it had always supported the role of the OIA and its head, Kathleen Florian.
“However, it is way wide of the mark on this issue,” Mr Hallam said.
“It doesn’t pass the pub test nor accord with the Australian Constitution. The OIA needs to recognise their error, withdraw their action and get back to their important work which does not include pontification on political speech.”
When asked about the matter, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, said that the OIA investigation was “a bit ridiculous”.
“I don’t think what he said was unusual – I think it’s a bit ridiculous, but that’s a matter for the independent assessor,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“Those comments were made earlier this year and they’ve had great vaccination rates out there.
“The mayor out there, I know him – he’s done a great job.”
The investigation into Mayor Dillon has brought broader attention onto the OIA, who have exhibited a pattern of ‘petty investigations’ into councillors. Calls for the disbandment of the council watchdog have since been building momentum.
Queensland Liberal National Party Senator, James McGrath, said, “The OIA, the Gestapo of local government in Queensland, is alleging that (Mayor Sean Dillon) made comments that could be considered detrimental to public confidence in our health service provider.
“The last time I checked, one of the primary roles of local government councils is to raise concerns on behalf of their local community.”
Former Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, said the matter was an “extremely sinister development” in Queensland’s democratic system.
“I think this office should be shut down and we should go back to local government legislation that was tried and tested and worked well for generations of this state,” Mr Newman said.