Local government review a breath of fresh air

Originally published in The Examiner 30 June 2020 (Available here)

"It's moments like these you need Minties" ... or not, if you're councillor Mike Wilson in Tasmania's most southern council (Huon Valley).

Can you believe your taxpayer dollars were spent on an inquiry into whether mints are or are not handed out at the start of Huon Valley Council meetings?

Of such great moment is this issue that a Code of Conduct complaint was made against Councillor Mike Wilson. The allegation? He lied about whether mints were handed out or not. Momentous stuff.

First, who would care, let alone think, to elevate such a matter to an official complaint? It was Mr Swan - a serial complainant and each time he complains it costs his fellow ratepayers money that should be spent on potholes.

Second, how could a self-respecting Code of Conduct Panel seriously entertain such a complaint? It should have been rejected.

Instead, the panel pontificated over the significance of this matter and thankfully determined to dismiss it.

Mr Swan also laid complaints against another popular Huon Valley councillor Mick Newell for calling him a "bloody coward" and a "parasite" and for being part of a Facebook group which "calls out the Huon Valley's biggest whinger". Cr Newell also referred to a "faceless group of people" at a council meeting. It seems Mr Swan self-identified although not being named.

All that said, Mr Swan labelled fellow ratepayers as telling "a blatant lie ... and they both know it" at a Legislative Council Committee hearing with the benefit of Parliamentary privilege. It seems what was good for the goose wasn't so good for the Swan.

Luckily I'm a senator and can call this nonsense out without having the panel shut me down for six weeks for giving expression to the views of constituents (the fate meted out to Councillor Newell).

In a robust democracy, people don't sit in circles holding hands humming flower power tunes. They will engage, disagree and yes, use colourful language. The electors will determine whether they like or appreciate that style.

It's not for a panel to pontificate about whether a democratically elected councillor's choice of language was appropriate.

After receiving 5000 votes, Councillor Newell should be able to determine, as will the voters, whether or not he demonstrated good judgement or "poor judgement" as determined by the panel. We have publicly funded panellists determining whether or not a type of language displays good or poor judgement. Pass me another Mintie.

I'm sure none of the panel members have ever exhibited poor judgement in their utterings.

Come on - we all have and more than once. But to suspend a councillor for six weeks from his democratically elected role because he called someone a few choice words is laughable.

Sir Robert Menzies referred to his opponents as "faceless". Bob Hawke referred to an older gentleman as a "silly old bastard". And they're the more printable ones. Just imagine this panel suspending Mr Menzies or Mr Hawke.

Thankfully state and federal parliamentarians don't have such stifling provisions, which would see most of us suspended and in fact would even see many letters to the editor being discarded.

And just in case the discerning The Examiner reader is thinking "typical silly Southerners ", the same problem alas festers in our northern woods as well. Just ask the highly popular Dorset mayor, Greg Howard (who has faced similar issues), or every other northern council other than the West Tamar Council where mayor Christina Holmdahl keeps the peace and Flinders Island.

In fairness to the panel though, it needs to administer the law which includes Part 7 of the Local Government (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2016, which requires that only saints run for local government. You see, according to Part 7 C1 1(b) "A councillor must not cause any reasonable person ... embarrassment".

How often are we embarrassed when reminded of misdeeds? I'm sure Labor was embarrassed when told they were run by "faceless" men and the old fellow in the Adelaide shopping mall being referred to on National TV as a "silly old bastard" was embarrassed.

And feeling "embarrassed" can be as simple as feeling "awkward" associated with mild levels of discomfort.

Tidying up the public discourse is always laudable. It's not for the strictures of official regulations imposed by one level of government (which doesn't bind itself by those standards) on to another.

The Code of Conduct Panel provisions need removal or at least a significant overhaul as otherwise these matters will ultimately end up in the High Court at great expense, which may well confirm an implied freedom of speech.

The current review of the Local Government Act needs to deal with this issue. Hopefully, someone will hand out the mints along with some common sense.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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