Analysis

Compromise in Yarra City code of conduct 'free speech' debate

JD
Updated March 15 2022 - 4:29pm, first published 12:00am
Cr Stephen Jolly ... 'a win for democracy'
Cr Stephen Jolly ... 'a win for democracy'

A woman was handing out pieces of gaffer tape at the Richmond Town Hall last week, as Yarra City Council held its second meeting of the year.

Victoria Chipperfield, a self-described "serial pest" when it came to the council, was trying to save it money on gags, she said.

It was a moment of high farce in a furore around Yarra City's efforts to curb councillor criticism through the provisions of a new code of conduct.

Under the state's Local Government Act, councils were required to develop a new code by February this year, and many adopted policies that would seem to infringe councillors' right to free speech.

The issue at Yarra had drawn the attention of Melbourne media, particularly after pressure group the Yarra Residents Collective likened the rule change to the regime in North Korea.

Several local residents had turned up to the meeting - the first in two years to be held in the flesh - ready to express strong feelings about the proposed new code.

Confusingly, they heard the version of the document that caused all the trouble had been wrongly uploaded to the council's website.

The offending sections of the policy required councillors to refrain from criticising or undermining council decisions in person and on social media, and to refer any media requests to the communications branch.

According to Socialist councillor Stephen Jolly, legal advice suggested the changes contravened Victoria's charter of human rights. Council staff cited their own lawyers' advice to the contrary.

However, the reaction resulted in changes to tone the code down. The revised version removed the ban on criticism and relaxed social media restrictions to allow publication of personal opinions with accompanying disclaimers where possible.

Still, it contained a prohibition on 'actively undermin[ing]' the council, which was unacceptable to Cr Jolly.

Citing a successful 2017 campaign he ran to oppose the introduction of a bin tax, he described the restriction as "a dangerous step", which could be misused against current or future councillors.

While the mayor argued the code's provisions were not intended to stop councillors having their say but to encourage them to act respectfully and communicate with their colleagues, the motion to adopt it needed a two-thirds majority.

Its defeat prompted Cr Herschel Landes to propose a compromise. Observing "one man's 'undermine' is another man's 'keeping the bastards honest'," Cr Landes suggested changing the word to 'misrepresent', and an agreement was struck.

Cr Landes believed the result reflected a balance between freedom of speech and "the interests of good governance".

Cr Jolly considered it a defence of democratic rights and "a win for democracy".

JD

Jenny Denton

Journalist

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