Huon Valley Guessing Games

Councillors last night (April 18) voted 8-1 to further inhibit their freedom of expression and to impose management monitoring of much of their public activities. It was all rather lemming-like, the lone resister proving the rule. (See also

Council may insist that I’ve got it all wrong, but I believe this is a reasonable conclusion to reach after reading the new ‘councillor portfolio protocols’ (CPPs) and ‘councillor interaction policy’ (CIP).

The most worrying section of the CPPs, headed ‘portfolio holders and the media’, reads:

• Portfolio holders (utilising the council’s community relations officer) may issue media releases as long as the content of those releases is consistent with council policy and council decisions. The mayor is to be advised of all such releases provided to the media.

• All media contact must be undertaken through the council’s community relations officer — portfolio holders are not to contact media outlets directly.

• Portfolio holders should not to (sic) media requests without prior discussion and with the approval of the mayor.

• Councillors must disclose their participation in any media or communications events to the general manager even if they were not attending in their capacity of portfolio holder for the specific subject.

• Portfolio holders must also advise the community relations officer when providing articles for websites or establishing a Facebook or Twitter account.

• Copies of all media statements are to be circulated to all councillors.

• The council will provide media training to councillors.

In response to observations by Councillors Rosalie Woodruff and Liz Smith that the wording of the above-quoted section is imprecise, GM Glenn Doyle emphasised that the words were exactly those agreed to by councillors in a workshop session. (Last night, no other councillor found a problem with the wording of the section. “We workshopped this (etc, etc),” was the cry.)

Doyle seemed to be implying that he had no hand in the drafting; and an offer by him to consider the wording for a review in October was brushed aside as unnecessary by Mayor Robert Armstrong. Give the new rules a year to see how they work, he decreed.

(Council workshops are not open to the public and now, under the CIP, what goes on in them will be as secret as ‘closed-council’ sessions. The CIP, among other restrictive clauses, reads: “Briefing notes, memos or workshop notes sent to councillors cannot be reproduced or provided to members of the public.”)

What all this amounts to is that the secret society that has been the Huon Valley Council for years will now be even more secretive.

Councillors — because of the cunningly couched Local Government Act 1993 (a document that makes a mockery of our so-called democratic processes, and which seems more designed to castrate than encourage the role of local government) — were already cramped in their ability to keep constituents informed of what goes on at council. All authority resides with the mayor and the general manager in terms of what leaks out of council in the form of genuine information; and, should push come to shove, there’s little doubt, under the act, that — despite all the bells and whistles attached to the mayoral role — final authority rests with the GM.

Now, the combined effect of state law, the CIP and the CPPs further dilutes the ability of councillors to serve their constituents.

The formulation of the CPPs was in response to a suggestion some months ago by Councillor Mike Wilson that councillors — not just the mayor — should be able to issue media releases that relate to the portfolios they hold (subject, naturally, to the blessing of the mayor and GM).

The consequent effect has echoes of what resulted from the ‘freedom of information’ debate across Australia in the 1980s. Whereas previously it had been able to apply to view almost any piece of information, as soon as state and federal FoI laws came into effect many categories of information were automatically ruled beyond public reach.

To foil FoI advocates, politicians and bureaucrats put up new barriers between the public and the information they might want to access. The effect of the CIP and CPPs appears to be much the same, though it would be interesting to see if they could withstand legal challenge.

Before the passing last night of the CPPs, although councillors could not make media releases, at least they were less constrained from communicating with their constituents. Now, as well as State Government directives, they have to bear in mind a whole new set of rules that tell them what is appropriate and what is not. It’s not a situation that is likely to encourage new blood to seek election to the state’s councils. Why apply for a job that will make you a slave to an inherently morally corrupt system?

Though the largely politically apathetic Huon Valley voters are unlikely to sense dangers in this latest retreat from the principles of democracy, deliberations at last night’s council meeting marked yet another widening in the communications gulf between voters and those who are elected/paid to serve them.