Friday, 16 October 2009

Democracy diminished...

In June this year, Newcastle councillors voted to be an “open and transparent organisation that engages the community and encourages participation in Council matters.”

This week, Newcastle councillors were presented with proposals that – if adopted – will confirm Newcastle as one of the least open and transparent councils in the state.

Proposed changes to Newcastle council’s Code of Meeting Practice and Code of Conduct would entrench a rising community perception that the Council is democratically dysfunctional.

Current media attention is understandably focused on proposed restrictions to councillors speaking to the media, but the proposed changes go much deeper than this.
The new draft Code of Meeting Practice formalises that Council workshops will continue to be held behind closed doors, away from the view of the public and the media.

These workshops, held outside the open meetings provisions of the Local Government Act, are not new in Newcastle, but they've never been used on the current scale. I’m still awaiting an answer from the General Manager on the exact number of topics discussed in the past year, but I reckon 100 wouldn’t be much short of the mark.

If many of the topics discussed at these closed workshops were on the agenda of an official council meeting, they wouldn’t qualify as legitimately confidential under the Act, and the meetings couldn’t lawfully be closed to the public and the media. The workshops provide a way to sidestep these legal restrictions.

The only reason for having these secret workshops is the desire of some councillors and council staff to discuss matters away from the public view. My attempts to make these workshops open to the public have been opposed by most councillors. The public has a right to know what is happening in these workshops and what topics are being discussed.

How this is open or transparent and how it engages the community and encourages participation is not apparent to me.

Proposed changes to the Code of Conduct would further stifle the flow of information from councillors to the community.

The most insidious proposed change is the introduction of a new category of “sensitive information”. As currently defined, this would include any information that a councillor might be given by memo or email, or during discussions at a secret workshop. Under the proposed change, a councillor could only provide such information to the community or the media if specifically authorised by the General Manager. This directly fetters the statutory role of a councillor “to facilitate communication between the council and the community”, and hands monopoly control over the flow of information on council matters to an unelected council officer. Such a fettering of an elected representative’s role would not only be a major step backward for local democracy and the community right-to-know, but may even be illegal.

This same repressive, anti-democratic approach is evident in new sections seeking to impose restrictions on councillors speaking to the media. Similar restrictions would apply to councillors using online media, such as blogs. As a councillor, I've maintained a blog for many years, as a means of conveying information about council matters to the community.

No argument has been advanced for these proposed changes, other than vague, unsubstantiated claims in the council report that they “reflect industry best practice”.

Recently, the Local Government Act was changed to clarify that a council is a “body politic”, rather than a “body corporate”. A key distinguishing feature of a body politic is that it is democratic institution elected by and accountable to the community of citizens. As a body politic, a council is part of our system of democratic government, and not simply part of a “corporate business”. We don't refer to other spheres of government as a “corporate business”. The citizens that a council serves are more than merely “customers”, and the mission of democratic governance and public policy is not the same as the mission of private enterprise or corporate management.

Democracy is diminished when elected councillors start to see themselves as more in partnership with council staff than with the community. Democracy is diminished when elected councillors think they have a greater duty to stop the community from observing the discussion of the policies of council than in facilitating community involvement and knowledge about what is going on in local government.

In this year when we are celebrating 150 years of local government in Newcastle, the credibility of Council's claim to be an open and transparent organisation that engages the community and encourages participation is on the line.

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