In 2016 the NSW Government amended the Local Government Act to change the legal definition of the role of councillors in the state.
As well as motherhood statements such as being active and making considered decisions, one of the new responsibilities was “to uphold and represent accurately the policies and decisions of the governing body” (Section 232, (1) f).
Taken at face value, this would seem to indicate that councillors should not publicly dispute decisions made by council, even if they do not agree with them. This is similar to the way a company’s board works, or Cabinet or a political party caucus.
Trouble is, councils are not like that. They are composed of individuals with wildly differing views. This can lead to acrimony and divisiveness. Councillors sometimes actually come to blows. But many would argue that it is the soul of local politics.
When the law was changed, there were some protestations that the new definition would lead to problems, and that councils would use it to stifle opposition. Now, it seems, those concerns are being realised.
Armidale Regional Council, the sleepy university and cathedral city in the cold and rugged New England region of northern NSW, has released a draft media policy which, if implemented, will greatly curtail the rights of councillors to speak out on matters they do not agree with.
The policy states that councillors must “support council’s official decisions” and “support Council’s official release of information rather than releasing information independently.” It goes on to state:
“To ensure consistency of communication with media, key messages will be developed and used. Council acknowledges that not all media coverage will reflect positively on the organisation however it will seek to ensure that any media coverage of matters is balanced. Staff delegated to speak to the media and the process for escalation of issues will be identified in communications plans.”
The policy is a direct result of the changes to the Local Government Act. It is a blatant attempt to stifle any councillor who disagrees with what the majority of the Council believes to be the ‘key messages’, and implicitly prohibits councillors who may disagree with council decisions from communicating their concerns to the media, “including on social media.” The full policy can be found here.
Not surprisingly, the draft policy has been met with outrage.
Fairfax Media has quoted NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge as saying that the policy will set a dangerous precedent, and Opposition Local Government spokesman Peter Primrose as saying it reflects a corporatisation of council activities.
“The change was designed to silence dissent and now Armidale Regional Council has a draft policy that tries to do just that,” said Mr Shoebridge. “Councillors are elected to represent their local community, not spout approved lines from management or the majority on council.”
Mr Primrose was equally forthright: “If a majority makes a decision, that doesn’t mean the minority should be silenced and they can’t continue advocating their positions. That’s how corporations work but we’re talking about people elected to represent local communities.”
Independent councillor Margaret O’Connor said the policy “effectively tries to put the media department of council in charge of what councillors can say, quite an extraordinary attempt to limit our freedom of speech.”
The only Labor Party member on council, Debra O’Brien, told local newspaper The Armidale Express that it is her duty to publicly question council decisions. “People didn’t vote for us to toe some hidden party line They voted for us so we’ll be accountable and answer their questions honestly. Anything less than that would be ripping off the ratepayers and residents,” she said.
Deputy mayor Dorothy Robinson, a Green, said the draft could prohibit councillors from saying anything that undermines public confidence, even when they have justifiable concerns.
“If councillors can’t disclose relevant non-sensitive information how can they explain their decisions or consult the community prior to making a decision? A lack of transparency could undermine public confidence in council decisions.”
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