Hall of secrets

By Shane Scanlan

The level of secrecy adopted by the City of Melbourne has been brought into sharp focus by recent inquiries about its approach to filling the 11th councillor vacancy.

Its culture of non-disclosure has long been disturbing, but has not really been measurable because there has been nothing to compare it with.

But in this instance, CBD News had cause to ask the same questions of another government agency – the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) – and the responses could not have been more different.

The question was, essentially, “what have the two agencies said to each other about how to resolve this matter?”

The public interest in this matter is extreme.  If the VEC wins its appeal against a magistrate’s ruling then Lord Mayor Robert Doyle looks like winning a majority number of councillors.  It is most reasonable to ask how and why the VEC and Cr Doyle have come to the same conclusion about the best way to resolve it.

Freedom of Information (FoI) requests were lodged with both agencies on December 6 seeking relevant documents (people might well ask why FoI was necessary!).

The VEC responded with copies of 20 documents in the mail before Christmas.  There was no hesitation, no obstruction, no fuss.  It did, however, delete the mobile phone numbers of officers.  Fair enough.

In contrast, the council took the view that the public servants involved have the right to decide whether or not they want their names included.  They interpret this as “personal affairs information” and, therefore, potentially exempt. Should the council decide to release any documents including their names, the relevant council officers will be given 60 days to appeal this decision.   On January 23, the council sent an invoice for the time it took to search the documents.

A further question was asked of both agencies on January 16 – what conversations had taken place between Cr Doyle and VEC Commissioner Warwick Gately.

The VEC responded promptly with dates and details of two conversations.  The council, on the other hand, said Cr Doyle was on leave and would not be back until after Australia Day. It later confirmed the two conversations but said Cr Doyle considered them confidential.

This example is not extraordinary in itself, but it well illustrates the town hall’s culture. The rot starts at the top and permeates every level of the organisation.

Far from celebrating transparency as one of the basics of local democracy, it resents public interest as an intrusion of its apparent right to run the council as an exclusive club.

Rank and file councillors are briefed on a needs-to-know basis and, should they lose the trust of officers, are punished via an information freeze.

Sadly, extreme secrecy has become normal.  It’s old reporters who can remember different norms who are out of step.

The council employs a small army of former journalists who are collectively paid about $1 million per year to carefully craft meaningless responses to media inquiries.

Recent examples that have yielded refusals have included: the specifics of the Lord Mayor’s declared conflict of interest from November 22’s Future Melbourne Committee; whether or not CEO Ben Rimmer is still being paid by the council after being on sick leave since the middle of last year; and the specific events nominated by the company which won a council tender.

It is customary to seek a response from all parties when writing a news story but, when it comes to the City of Melbourne, it is almost pointless.

The council has long lost its way and feels little obligation or accountability to the people it is supposed to represent and who pay them.

Of course, this decay in democratic standards is not confined to the City of Melbourne.  It’s a global phenomenon against which citizens feel affronted but largely powerless to influence.

No doubt Donald Trump hit a nerve with many voters who would ordinarily not have supported him by pledging to “drain the swamp” and reveal what actually happens within government.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign of anything like that happening here.

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