Local government elections and two state by-elections are still slated to go ahead, but the Queensland Government now has the power to postpone them under laws that went through Parliament last night.
- The new legislative measures are temporary and only apply to the 2020 local government elections
- Political commentator Dr Paul Williams says the powers now granted are “certainly unprecedented”
- Queensland’s constitution has been altered to allow the Government to convene via video conferencing
At this stage, Queensland’s local government elections are to be held across the state for March 28.
The new bill stated that new legislative measures were temporary and would only apply to the 2020 quadrennial local government election “in order to maximise public safety and minimise the public health risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic”.
However, under the terms of the Public Health and Other Legislation (Public Health Emergency) Amendment Bill 2020 that was passed, the Queensland Government now has the power to:
- allow for the suspension or termination of the 2020 quadrennial local government election, if needed, and confirm the respective caretaker arrangements that apply during a period of suspension,
- allow the timeframes for the receipt of postal vote applications to be extended for certain electors,
- allow flexibility in deciding if a poll is to be conducted by postal ballot,
- provide flexibility in the filling of councillor vacancies that may arise if the election is not held in March 2020, and
- allow for the continuation of the Ipswich City Council and Logan City Council interim administrations if the election is significantly delayed.
Electoral Commissioner Pat Vidgen said the new legislation was necessary.
“It means that if there’s further health advice and things needed to change, it would allow some flexibility in terms of how we deliver the election,” Mr Vidgen said.
“These are extraordinary times and they’re extraordinary amendments, but they’re required given the circumstances we’re in.
“It may mean there’s greater flexibility to finish the current process or depending on the health implications, perhaps a new process.”
1 million Queenslanders already voted
Already close to 1 million Queenslanders have voted either via postal votes or at the pre-polling stations.
“If there was something which meant we had to stop the process now, we’d have to look across the board in terms of what we’ve received, what’s outstanding, how we’ll secure the ballots we’ve already received, and how we can assure the community that any result we get down the track is a valid and lawful one,” Mr Vidgen said.
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The Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ) said it had put on more staff to allow for the smooth running of polling stations and to ensure no more than 100 people entered a booth at once.
Mr Vidgen said he still expected the majority of voters would vote on the main polling day on March 28, but encouraged people to take their own pen or pencil, and to leave the 9:00am to 11:00am window for elderly voters.
“Our aim is to get people through safely and quickly, and we’ll need people to cooperate with that,” Mr Vidgen said.
Griffith University political commentator Dr Paul Williams said the powers now granted were “certainly unprecedented”.
“In normal circumstances you’d find a lot of naysayers, a lot of critics, as would be quite right in a democracy, [because] governments can’t arbitrarily move election dates,” Dr Williams said.
“But I think the public this time is very much in sympathy with this.
“Voters themselves don’t want to put themselves at risk by standing in queues at the height of the crisis and that’s why we’ve seen a huge spike in pre-polling and postal applications.
“I think the Government’s on safe ground with this and it’s probably reassuring for voters.
“It might not be in the best interests of electoral democracy but it’s much more important to keep Queenslanders safe.”
Your questions on coronavirus answered:
On ABC Radio Brisbane this morning, incumbent Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner said his latest advice was that the election would go ahead.
“I spoke to the chief health officer just this morning, and there is certainly no move at that level to cancel the election,” Mr Schrinner said.
“Basically what’s happening here is instead of having the election on one day, which is the normal situation, it’s being spread across two weeks.”
Election must go ahead: Attorney-General
Queensland’s Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath said she had spoken to Chief Medical Officer Jeanette Young, who had told it was “really important” the election proceed, in order to provide stability at a local government level.
“Right now they’re in caretaker [mode], and any delay means decisions can’t be made and we need all levels of government working,” she said.
However, Ms D’Ath added a significant caveat.
“Of course that advice can change and that’s why we put contingency measures in the legislation last night – but the election is happening.”
Ms D’Ath also reiterated the advice from the ECQ, which was that voters aged over 60 should go early to vote.
Labor mayoral candidate Patrick Condren released a statement that welcomed “unilateral agreement” among the major political parties in the Brisbane City Council campaign to eliminate the physical handing out of how-to-vote cards.
“Each political party will limit the number of volunteers present,” Mr Condren said, adding that he had also voted early in the pre-poll.
“This agreement is one that I welcome. This is the safe and responsible thing to do.”
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