Paul Mur­ray

Mis­sion to speak out

The West Australian - - INSIDE COVER - OPIN­ION

This is a story of one man’s mis­sion to speak out about how his lo­cal gov­ern­ment op­er­ates in West­ern Aus­tralia. Michael South­well is a Walk­ley Award win­ning for­mer re­porter for this news­pa­per who left 15 years ago to go into his fam­ily’s busi­ness.

He won Aus­tralia’s top print jour­nal­ism award in 2002 for a three-year long in­ves­ti­ga­tion into health and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues sur­round­ing Al­coa’s re­finer­ies in WA.

It was no se­cret in the news­room that his se­ries of re­ports over 18 months were pub­lished against strong op­po­si­tion, some of it from his own ed­i­tor.

Like a lot of the best in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists, South­well can be a dif­fi­cult bug­ger. He is driven by a relentless cu­rios­ity, a prob­ing na­ture that led a for­mer premier to say he “smelled cab­bage cook­ing in ev­ery cor­ri­dor” and a can­tan­ker­ous re­bel­lious­ness when he thinks he is be­ing ob­structed.

By way of dis­clo­sure, I have known him since we met on the staff of The West­ern Mail in the early 1980s and he’s been one of my clos­est col­leagues and friends ever since.

Finding civvy street a bit bor­ing af­ter the me­dia, South­well joined the Bridgetown Shire Coun­cil where a bat­tle was brew­ing over a biomass plant near his ru­ral home in 2007.

He re­cently moved to Bun­bury, where his chil­dren were en­rolled in school, and sub­se­quently won a seat on the Capel shire in Oc­to­ber last year.

He soon saw things he thought needed chang­ing.

This year he has had a se­ries of find­ings made against him by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment stan­dards panel over is­sues he raised in the coun­cil or com­ments he made about them on his Face­book page.

And now the Capel coun­cil has adopted a new com­mu­ni­ca­tions and so­cial me­dia pol­icy that seeks to re­strict what coun­cil­lors can say or com­mu­ni­cate in pri­vate if their words “have the po­ten­tial to be made pub­lic.”

Con­sider the chill­ing ef­fect that edict has on free speech. Ev­ery coun­cil­lor has to sec­ond guess what might hap­pen to any crit­i­cal words they ut­ter pri­vately.

How does it ben­e­fit ratepay­ers who want is­sues aired openly and trans­par­ently by their elected representatives?

It seeks to turn coun­cil­lors into noth­ing more than vac­u­ous cheer squads.

South­well’s first trans­gres­sion came af­ter he un­suc­cess­fully moved in Jan­uary to change coun­cil seat­ing ar­range­ments so staff, other than the CEO, were not at the ta­ble un­less re­quested by the pres­i­dent.

“My rea­sons were that un­der the Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Act, coun­cil meet­ings should be held, run and con­ducted by elected coun­cil­lors only, not se­nior staff,” South­well wrote on his Face­book page. “At Capel, all the se­nior staff sit at the coun­cil ta­ble dur­ing all the meet­ings.”

CEO Paul Sheedy com­plained and the stan­dards panel up­held that South­well breached the lo­cal gov­ern­ment rules of con­duct by caus­ing “detri­ment” to se­nior staff by in­fer­ring they were “run­ning and con­duct­ing coun­cil meet­ings”.

South­well was also slot­ted for mov­ing a mo­tion call­ing on the CEO to open to the pub­lic so-called “round ta­ble dis­cus­sions” and “bud­get work­shops” held be­fore coun­cil meet­ings.

In his rea­sons for the mo­tion, pub­lished in the min­utes, South­well ar­gued it would make the coun­cil more open and ac­count­able.

This was found to be a “detri­ment” to coun­cil­lors by in­fer­ring they were mak­ing de­ci­sions prior to coun­cil meet­ings.

Whether or not that pos­si­ble in­fer­ence is true was ir­rel­e­vant.

The ve­rac­ity of a state­ment made sup­port­ing a coun­cil mo­tion was never in­ves­ti­gated.

The CEO had an­other com­plaint up­held that South­well said on his Face­book page that all coun­cil­lors other than him did not sup­port a se­ries of mo­tions from the an­nual elec­tors’ meet­ings.

The CEO al­leged one of the four sub­se­quent coun­cil de­ci­sions con­test­ing the elec­tors’ mo­tions was also op­posed by one other coun­cil­lor.

So the votes were 8-1, 8-1, 8-1 and 7-2, not 8-1, 8-1, 8-1, 8-1.

That al­leged mis­take by South­well ap­par­ently caused “detri­ment” to other coun­cil­lors. Nowhere in the coun­cil min­utes is the other dis­sent­ing coun­cil­lor named.

How­ever, the most bizarre breach was for ask­ing a ques­tion on no­tice at the March coun­cil meet­ing:

“In re­gards to the coun­cil pol­icy which sees an­nual pay­ments made by the shire to the coun­cil’s pres­i­dent, Cr Scott, and one of his rel­a­tives, Mr Chris Scott, of $830 and $2453 re­spec­tively, for their roles as vol­un­teer fire­fight­ing of­fi­cers, are any sim­i­lar pay­ments made to other vol­un­teers in the shire who may of­fer sig­nif­i­cant com­mit­ments in terms of time, ef­fort and per­sonal ex­pense.”

Cr Mur­ray Scott com­plained that South­well was in­fer­ring that he re­ceived pay­ment be­cause he was the shire pres­i­dent when it was in ac­cor­dance with a pol­icy adopted in 2002 to make pay­ments to the chief and deputy chief bush fire control of­fi­cers. Scott has been pres­i­dent since 2001.

Chris Scott said by nam­ing him as chief bush fire control of­fi­cer and his re­la­tion­ship to an elected mem­ber of the coun­cil, South­well had “dis­ad­van­taged both my­self and fu­ture in­cum­bents of this po­si­tion in the eyes of the com­mu­nity”.

South­well said the ques­tion was asked “hon­estly and rea­son­ably” in the per­for­mance of his du­ties as a coun­cil­lor.

He did not know the an­swer when he asked it.

The lo­cal gov­ern­ment stan­dards panel found South­well made “im­proper use of his of­fice” by ask­ing the ques­tion and did so to cause detri­ment to Cr Scott.

The judg­ment makes in­ter­est­ing read­ing for those fas­ci­nated by ar­cane le­gal gym­nas­tics. Other­wise it’s ridicu­lous.

“The ques­tion on no­tice is stated and com­mu­ni­cated in such a way as to im­ply that the sec­ond com­plainant is given pref­er­ence over other vol­un­teers in the shire and re­ceives an an­nual pay­ment of $2453 be­cause he is a rel­a­tive of the shire pres­i­dent and not be­cause of his in­de­pen­dent role as chief bush fire control of­fi­cers,” the finding said.

South­well now has seven panel find­ings against him and thinks there are an­other five mat­ters in the pipe­line.

Since the coun­cil adopted the new WALGA com­mu­ni­ca­tions pol­icy at its Novem­ber meet­ing, he is un­sure what he can say any­where about any­thing to do with the coun­cil.

lIl­lus­tra­tion: Don LIndsay

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