The Finance and Governance Committee meeting of Yarra Council on Monday night saw high drama and a walkout as the ALP began their push for a new local law to effectively cut residents out of Council meetings. The proposed law will also introduce harsh punishments for minority Councillors who are deemed by their political opponents to be breaching the vaguely worded ‘Code of Conduct’.
The behaviour of Councillors is covered by the Victorian Local Government Act and the Council’s Code of Conduct. The Act is already strict and allows for the summary dismissal of Councils and Councillors by the Minister.
However it seems this is not enough for ALP Councillors who, at Yarra, have to face a very organised and politically aware community and the only Socialist Councillor in Australia, the Socialist Party’s Stephen Jolly.
The ALP are backing a recommendation from the unelected senior officers at Yarra Council to radically ramp up the Code of Conduct to make it the most ruthless in Victoria. For example:
1. A Councillor found by a majority of Councillors to breach the Code of Conduct can be fined $2000, forced to make a public apology, lose their child care support to get to meetings, lose their phone and their computer access, and be expelled from Committees.
2. If a Councillor is sued in the course of their duties by a business or individual they have to pay a $5000 access to the insurance company for legal help whether found guilty or not. This amount will be the same for a millionaire Councillor or a Councillor on low pay.
3. Suspension of Standing Orders will be banned. At the moment residents often attend Council meetings in big numbers to lobby on key issues. By suspending standing orders they can address Councillors. This tactic has succeeded in many times to help force change. The new law bans it. Residents can only sit and listen or have 2 minutes to ask a question under tight regulation.
Under questioning from SP Cllr Stephen Jolly on Monday night, Ivan Gilbert the Executive Manager of Governance admitted that:
1. No Councillor had been found guilty of breeching the Code of Conduct since Yarra was established in 1994. So it’s obvious the new changes are aimed at current Councillors.
2. He also admitted there would be no guarantee that a political majority could not abuse the laws against a political minority.
For the ALP, when they can’t win the political debates they try to use organisational methods to repress political dissent. This law is clearly aimed (to start with) at the Socialist Party and at community mobilisation.
It has been the combination of the SP and community mobilisations that has helped save The Cottages and the St Vinnies de Paul Community Shop. It has also put public housing issues on the map, and assisted with many, many other victories over the past three years.
Last night the ALP Chair of the Finance and Governance Committee, Cllr Paul D’Agastino, refused to allow residents to address the meeting to question and criticise the new law. This provoked a walkout by SP Cllr Jolly, Green Cllr Jenny Farrar and Independent Cllr Jackie Fristacky thus taking away the meeting quorum.
After fierce argument no-one was game to move the motion supporting the Local Law and it lapsed.
The Council CEO, Justin Hanney, then surprisingly announced that the Executive he leads will resubmit the Local Law at the December Committee meeting and this will probably lead to the final vote two weeks later at the full Council meeting.
As SP Cllr Stephen Jolly will be overseas for the Committee meeting the vote could be 2-2 (Fristacky and Farrar against vs two ALP Councillors, D’Agastino and Kay Meadows in favour).
As the ALP have the Chair, they have the casting vote when there is a tie. Therefore the local law could be approved at the Committee meeting and then go to full Council for final approval two weeks later.
This proposed law will be resisted through defiance, mass action, and a legal challenge. The Socialist Party pledges to organise the biggest mobilisation yet outside the Richmond Town Hall on the night of the December Council meeting (Tuesday 18th December 7pm). We refuse to stand by whilst the ALP attempts to push through this anti-democratic legislation which is aimed at assisting the process of them implementing their neo-liberal polices.
By Socialist Party reporters