A few years ago I returned to Sydney after nearly a life-time spent working in England. With my interest in politics undimmed, I joined and offered to help the local Liberals. I was flattered to be immediately snapped up, only later discovering that anyone with a pulse and $100 was equally welcomed. As I set about mugging up on the many years of political and legal history I’d missed, I observed with the eyes of an outsider that the old authoritarian streak of our legislators inherited from colonial times was still very much alive and well in NSW and Australia.
I found it amusing that politicians of all hues so frequently boasted that ‘Australian freedoms’ were the envy of the world, and sad that so many of us accepted the boast as fact, when the truth was that Australians are subject to more restrictive and prohibitive legislation than probably any other democratic society on earth. How many others, for example, can and do stop their citizens – and indeed other countries’ citizens – from leaving their shores if the tax office claim they owe anything?
Indeed, over the last couple of years most of my time with the Liberals has, due to this authoritarian streak, been taken up in researching and proposing motions – well supported by fellow-Liberals I hasten to add – calling on the NSW Liberal government to stop acting in an illiberal fashion. Many related to the Baird government’s blind defence of the indefensible in all matters ICAC. This included their refusal to prevent that Star Chamber from destroying the lives and reputations of innocent people of whom they could find no evidence of any criminal offence; their unquestioning acquiescence to the legislative demands of Megan Latham for even more powers; and their refusal to compensate victims subsequently found not guilty by the courts such as former State Emergency Service Commissioner Murray Kear. Then there was their trashing of the rule of law by their confiscation without compensation of mining leases from innocent overseas third parties; and their attempts to outlaw and destroy a whole industry – greyhound racing – to name just a few.
Sources had told me that Mike Baird, similarly to his predecessor Barry O’Farrell, brooked no opposition to his stated positions and ran his party room much as Stalin ran the Politburo. So when Baird suddenly stood down as Premier in January, I thought that no longer would I have to waste time protesting about illiberal measures to a Liberal government.
That is, until last week! A Liberal friend, a solicitor and also leader of the Liberal minority group on a Council dominated by an alliance of Greens, Labor and so-called Independents, told me that at a recent council meeting she’d been taunted by the Mayor that if she, or any of the Liberal group, failed to support publicly outside the chamber policies that had just been pushed through against Liberal opposition inside the chamber, a formal complaint would be lodged against them. When she asked the Mayor what she was talking about she was referred to section 232(1)(f) of the Local Government Act 1993 (NSW).
I’d clearly forgotten my Julius Caesar that tells us that the evil that men do lives after them, for this far-reaching revision was inserted into that particular Act as a result of being tucked away in the Local Government Amendment (Governance & Planning) Bill that was passed into law on 30 August 2016, fully 5 months before the end of Mike Baird’s regime.
Under the existing s.232, the legal duty of a councillor was perfectly satisfactorily defined as being ‘to represent the interests of the residents and ratepayers’. The new clause redefines that duty as ‘to uphold and represent accurately the policies and decisions of the governing body’. In other words, the current NSW Liberal government has just removed the right to free speech from any elected local government representative who does not agree with a majority decision of their council.
The Bill went through second and third readings in each House in a single day and, surprise, surprise, there were no objections to the clause from the government benches. It was left to the opposition to complain that ‘it silences a councillor who is in a minority or who does not support the majority decision’; ‘it will be used to quieten and to put aside any opinions differing from those of the controlling blocs’ and that it is ‘a genuinely Orwellian provision’.
Not mentioned was the fact that this change was introduced less than two weeks before the council elections on 10 Sept, 2016. It radically altered the terms on which elected councillors could take office and as every candidate had already committed themselves to standing, the change amounted to retrospective legislation. Furthermore, such was the lack of publicity that it’s unlikely that any candidate was aware of the change.
In reply to the debate in the upper house, the Minister said ‘The proposal does not silence dissent or require councillors to agree. It simply requires them to act with integrity’. If I were her I’d change my legal advisers immediately because that statement is utter nonsense. That the Minister with charge of the Bill in the lower house later used these identical words suggests they were both simply reading from scripts prepared for them by bureaucrats.
This illiberal measure, denying freedom of speech to elected representatives, must not be allowed to remain on the statute book. The fact that a government that prides itself on its commitment to the traditional rights and freedoms of a parliamentary democracy could allow this to happen is extremely worrying. It suggests to me that most of our elected representatives are nothing more than stuffed dummies who present to a docile party whatever authoritarian/left-wing rubbish is handed to them to read out by the bureaucrats who pull their strings.