Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Newcastle Council: ‘democratically dysfunctional’

Newcastle Greens
23 September 2009

Greens Councillor Michael Osborne today declared Newcastle Council democratically dysfunctional, after councillors voted down a Greens proposal to open secret councillor workshops to the public and the media.

“The first year of this council has seen unprecedented use of secret, behind-closed-doors sessions between councillors and council staff, held outside the requirements of the Local Government Act,” Greens councillor Michael Osborne said today.

“In many of these sessions, issues are discussed in detail and de facto decisions are made on a nod-and-a-wink, out of the view of the public and the media – exactly what the Department says should not happen in such sessions. This practice circumvents and undermines the open government provisions in the Local Government Act.

“Last night, I proposed that the council open these sessions to the public, and incorporate workshops protocol into the council’s code of meeting practice, as recommended by the Department.

“Amazingly, a majority of Independent and Labor councillors thumbed their noses at the Department’s guidelines - only Clr Mike King (Independent) and Clr Tim Crakanthorp (Labor) voted to support my proposal (Clr Mike Jackson (Labor) was absent).

“While the council mouths empty clichés about its commitment to openness and transparency, and leads the celebration of 150 years of local democracy in Newcastle, the elected council hasn’t even been prepared to observe basic democratic practices,” Clr Osborne said.

“In its first year, this council has shut down previous avenues of community input (such as Community Forums), slashed the number of publicly accessible council meetings, and increased its use of confidential sessions and informal councillor ‘briefings’.

“We haven’t seen such a closed, secretive council in Newcastle for nearly two decades.

“The public and the media are now seeing precious little information, debate or discussion in official council meetings on crucial local public policy issues, and local democracy and the public right to know are now being sacrificed in favour of secrecy.

“While some of the councillors who voted against my proposal complain about people in the community being too suspicious or negative about council, the fact is that this culture of secrecy is now the norm in the current council, and ordinary Newcastle citizens are beginning to realise this.”

Clr Osborne said that he intended to contact the Department of Local Government about his concerns, and would discuss the issue with members of the local community.

“Now that the community’s elected representatives have refused to act to protect local democracy and the public right to know, ordinary community members will have to consider what options they have to defend this,” Clr Osborne said.

“Something has to be done: people who care about democracy aren’t just going to stand by and accept this.”

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