Opinion

Murray River Council banned free speech

by
January 20, 2018

ON FRIDAY the Riverine Herald was told one of Murray River Council’s most senior staffers, appointed only late 2017, had gone.

It was not known if she walked or was pushed.

And if the council has its way none of us will ever know.

Because Murray River Council has also voted 6-2 (one councillor was absent) to ban anyone speaking to the media except for the mayor, Chris Bilkey, and acting general manager Des Bilske.

If the report we were given, that said staffer was barely into the first year of a three-year contract, understood to be worth a minimum of $300,000, is correct the ratepayers of this new shire have every right to know what happened, why it happened and, most importantly, what it cost them.

The people at the helm in this council and shire need to remember something very clearly – they work for the ratepayers.

This is not their own secret society to run as a fiefdom and be answerable to nobody. The former Murray Shire (now part of this amalgamated local government area) tried that and was sacked.

Council writer VIVIENNE DUCK was at the meeting when the gag order was agreed.

FREE speech may not be dead but around here it may be on life support.

We live in a country where free speech is not enshrined in our constitution as it is with the US and its famous First Amendment.

In our case, in that very Australian way, it is ‘implied’.

But when members of our community are chosen to represent the people who elected them it would be hoped they would be empowered by that implied freedom.

To say what they wish about issues affecting their community.

To give their opinion on issues they are passionate about.

And to politely tell the media to back off on issues they are not.

But not in our twin towns, and twin councils.

Murray River Council this week voted to adopt a gag law, shutting down the rights of your elected representatives to speak to the media.

The mayor and general manager are now the sole spokespersons of the council, killing, in one fell swoop, the freedom of speech these local government representatives signed up for.

The Australian Constitution does not expressly protect freedom of speech or expression.

In 1992, however, the High Court of Australia held that a right to freedom of expression, in so far as public and political discussion were concerned, was implied in the Constitution.

And if the discussion at said council meeting is anything to go by this policy might be rubbing some councillors up the wrong way, but is encouraging most of them to demand more censorship.

Waving around newspaper articles and questioning what was in them as if they had the right to know what each councillor said to what paper and when.

That is the point of having nine councillors.

So there are three different opinions coming from, and openly and honestly representing, the three different wards.

Not so there can be an editing process where each member of council reads through each councillor’s response before sending it off to the media. But that would seem to be the path down which Murray River Council is going.

Earlier this week the Riverine Herald asked whether a senior MRC departmental director had left ridiculously soon after being appointed, and whether she had resigned or been booted, the shutters went up.

Council’s response to the query was: ‘‘Please be aware that Murray River Council will not provide any comments for publication on matters concerning individual persons in the employment of Council as this will be in breach of Council’s contractual relationship with staff members as well as Council’s Code of Conduct and Privacy legislation’’. It was signed by acting general manager Des Bilske.

And when clarified that all we wanted was a yes or no, and that we didn’t need any details about contracts, the door was again slammed in our face.

No comment.

No comment.

No comment.

Is that all we are going to be met with now from our local councillors on that side of the river? Because if it is it means our readers — the ratepayers funding this enterprise that now only wants its side of the story told — won’t be delivered the full story, it will only receive the council spin that will conveniently cover up everything going on behind the scenes.

Your elected representatives, regardless whether they agree or disagree, will not be allowed to stand up and make their point. The only losers here are the ratepayers.

Campaspe Shire has a similar policy where all media requests have to go through their media officer.

And council then decides who responds to the questions.

Not that the questions are ever answered in full.

We get what they want to give us.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand council’s want to protect their public image.

And they are more than happy to send us press releases when they want to highlight any positive work they are doing, and that we are happy to run as it is all good community updates.

As journalists, we are the voice of the people.

We are the source to which people turn when they want the full story.

And our public figures must have the right to say what they want?

And shouldn’t we, as the media, be able to ask them directly when there is something we think they should comment on?

Apparently not.

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