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Councillors tamed and tethered by code

Newcastle Herald

Friday March 25, 2011

Greg Ray

WHAT is the point of having elected local councillors?Over the past couple of decades, as successive state governments have pressed councils to become more like corporations, the elected councillors have lost clout.These days, with the government‚„s bizarre ‚“code of conduct‚ť legislation, it seems that many councillors are being cowed into believing they are not permitted to express opinions in case these might harm the reputation and standing of their organisations.All over the state, and all over the Hunter, councils are tying themselves in knots with code of conduct complaints.Somebody just has to suggest that a councillor may have breached the code of conduct and, if the general manager thinks there might possibly be a case to answer, an expensive, nit-picking process is set in motion.Lawyers are hired to run inquiries and in some cases they escalate into toxic legal nightmares that have the potential to cost ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.Most would agree that politicians at all levels ‚€ś not just local government ‚€ś ought to be subject to some kind of enforceable code of conduct.We don‚„t want bribes of any sort affecting decisions, for example. We want conflicts of interest declared. We don‚„t want nepotism, favouritism or any of the other ‚ś‚śisms‚„‚„ that can slip in when public money is being spent.But it‚„s clear that some people have been using code of conduct complaints as political tools to harass their opponents.It‚„s been alleged in various quarters, for example, that the established political parties might be using these complaints to nobble independents and Greens.That might explain why the Greens are the party pushing hardest to reform the system. They want, for a start, general managers to be relieved of the role of gatekeeper for complaints. I think they may have a point when they suggest the potential for conflict of interest is high for general managers in that position.Sometimes bosses of all kinds of organisations can take criticism of those organisations and their staff pretty personally, and it isn‚„t fair to expect them to handle complaints that might arise as a result of penetrating or difficult questions with unfailing even-handedness.When I used to cover council meetings for this newspaper the aldermen used to treat town clerks and city planners and suchlike with the utmost respect.But then, those people weren‚„t on short-term performance contracts and they were able to take a long-term and dispassionate view. Sometimes that was a good thing. Sometimes maybe it wasn‚„t so good.But if an alderman thought council staff had made a mistake, overlooked something or been a bit slack, they could say so. This was not disloyalty to the flagship. This was all part of doing their job.These days the intensity of feeling over some code of conduct complaints has brought fears that the system is being used to stop councillors from asking

© 2011 Newcastle Herald

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