By Dominique Tassell
The Southern Downs Regional Council has this morning passed a new media policy, approved by all councillors present bar Councillor Cynthia McDonald.
The new media policy states that councillors must report, wherever possible, all media approaches to the CEO and Media and Communications Coordinator and Officer(s) within 24 hours. Councillors must also get written statements to the media approved by the CEO and Media and Communications Coordinator and Officer(s).
Councillor McDonald says “I believe the intent of the policy has merit, as it’s attempting to ensure that there is a consistent message that is actually given by the council. However, I am of the opinion that the policy could possibly contravene the word and intent of the Code of Conduct of Councillors in Queensland”.
Councillor McDonald then highlighted the two key principles of the applicable code of conduct, stating that councillors maintain a “transparent and effective process, and decision making in the public interest” and “democratic representation, social inclusion, and meaningful community engagement”.
“I do believe that these policies don’t sit in line with the intent of the Code of Conduct for Councillors in Queensland and we need to address that,” she said.
Councillor McDonald stated that sections of the policy contradicted each other, and the policy appeared to her to be “stifling a council member’s democratic right to speak freely”.
She stated that if she did not report a media contact within 24 hours she could have a complaint lodged against her, which would be at the rate-payer’s expense.
Councillor McDonald stated that the council was moving towards “democratic backsliding” by removing councillors’ ability to speak freely, which could be seen as a possible effort to silence any dissent from within council.
“This will only result in the disempowerment of councillors, and the loss of freedom of speech. Which I feel is so very very important,” she stated.
“I was elected to the council in my own right and stand accountable to the people of the community.
“I will not under any circumstances be silenced. I believe I have democratic rights the same as every person around this table, and I would like to be able to exercise them and speak.”
Councillor McDonald stated that she had previously gone to the CEO for advice before commenting to the media, and that every councillor would be responsible enough to do the same should they have questions that needed clarifying.
She also stated that when in an interview, she did not know what questions were going to be posed and could therefore not possibly give 24 hours’ notice of them.
Given those points, Councillor McDonald stated she would not be supporting the policies, believing they needed further work.
While Councillor McDonald opposed the policy, it was supported by the rest of council.
Councillor Bartley stated that he thought the intent of the policy was right. He stated “if you read the purpose of the policy (it) is designed to strengthen and build on council’s existing relationship with the media in aims to ensure consistency by councillors and staff dealing with the media on a day-to-day basis, and provide some guidelines for successful media relations”.
Mayor Vic Pennisi stated that “councillors are entitled to speak to the media as long as they make it clear it is outside council’s position. That they make it clear it is their personal view. Which is a long way, a long way, improved from what we had in the past.”
“All that the policy is saying, is if you are of a different view to council, you must state to the media that it is your personal view,” Mayor Pennisi stated.
Councillors Gow, Tancred, and Gliori suggested amending the policies to include the phrase “wherever possible” for consistency, with both Councillor Gow and Tancred stating they did not believe the policy contained anything prohibiting them from talking to the media.
Councillor Gow stated that he shared all inquiries, from both the media and community, with the CEO and mayor.
“I think that’s all we’re looking for from the media policy is the same as we treat with respect anyone in the community. Is that everyone is entitled to whatever information that they want within legislative bounds, and let’s make sure that everyone gets the same message so everyone’s on the same page,” Councillor Gow stated.
Mayor Pennisi stated that the policy was about ensuring a consistent message, and that he prioritises communicating with council staff already to ensure this.
“It’s about the organisation, it’s not about me. It’s not about us, it’s about the organisation.”
Councillor Tancred stated that he thought council needed to give the policy “a chance to work”, and that if there were complaints they could review it down the track.
The motion was moved by Councillor Tancred, and seconded by Councillor Gale.
Councillor McDonald did not speak any further against the policy, saying she thought she’d said enough.