By KIERAN FINNANE
Last updated 8.48 pm, 28 August 2018.
In what looked like an extraordinary move to head off debate on the sensitive matter of the recent reception of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Town Council CEO Rex Mooney, as reported last night, announced that a “concerned ratepayer” had paid in full the cost of the reception.
He said the ratepayer considered the visit by the (then) Prime Minister was “very significant” and “a benefit to the community, especially for the youth leaders”. On that basis the anonymous ratepayer offered to cover the $1409.91 that had been spent. The donation was “unsolicited” and Mr Mooney saw no reason to not accept it. The money had already been received by council.
Councillor Marli Banks (pictured above, speaking, Cr Glen Auricht in the foreground) had given notice that she would move a motion to on-charge the costs to the organisers of the event – presumably the Prime Minister, Senator Nigel Scullion and Cr Jacinta Price. Mr Mooney made his announcement of the donation as this agenda item came up.
In the committee meeting a fortnight ago Cr Banks had argued, backed by Cr Eli Melky, that the event was not properly a mayoral or civic reception, but rather a campaign event for Cr Price, who is the CLP’s candidate for the federal seat of Lingiari.
Mr Mooney confirmed that the invitation list for the reception was not in council’s control, but rather was managed by Senator Scullion and the Prime Minister’s office. At the committee meeting a fortnight ago Cr Price, before she left the chamber due to her conflict of interest, also said she had organised part of the function.
The more important part of Cr Banks’s motion last night addressed the significance of this, asking council to “determine that the nature of the Prime Ministerial function … does not fall under the category of a Mayoral or Civic Centre reception”.
Donation or no donation, that at least remained unresolved.
Cr Melky, no doubt seeing an attempt to scuttle the motion before it could even be debated, insisted that as a matter of procedure, the motion should be put. He suggested to the CEO that his commentary about the donation had been “mistimed”.
Mayor Damien Ryan said, that as the account had been paid, he didn’t see any reason to continue with the agenda item.
Cr Melky insisted: an attempt “to manoeuvre around” not discussing the motion would be a breach of process.
So Mayor Ryan asked for the motion to be moved. Cr Jamie de Brenni then excused himself as did Cr Price, who was attending the meeting by phone (he left the room, she hung up).
At the committee meeting, when this issue was first aired, Cr Banks had put to both that they had a conflict of interest, Cr Price as the CLP candidate who benefited from the PM’s enthusiastic endorsement, and Cr de Brenni as vice-president of the CLP.
Cr Banks had also argued that the Mayor had a “perceived conflict of interest” as the father-in-law of the CLP second Senate candidate Joshua Burgoyne. Mayor Ryan did not accept this but nonetheless left the room on the suggestion of the chair. Last night though he was in the chair himself and had no intention of going.
But clearly he still hoped to stifle debate: “Move the motion Cr Banks, seconded Cr Melky, all in favour?”
Not so fast: a point of order from Cr Melky: “We’ve got to allow the motion to run.” He also asked for explanation of why the Mayor was staying in the room.
Mayor Ryan said nothing had changed: he said then that he had no conflict of interest, that was still the case, and he was staying.
Cr Melky said it was good that he was staying. Cr Banks though reiterated her argument that he had a perceived conflict of interest.
Mayor Ryan reiterated his argument: that Josh Burgoyne’s name had not been mentioned in relation to the reception, “which all councillors were invited to”. (Cr Banks claims that not all were.)
It was put to a vote that standing orders be removed to allow a free flow of debate. This was opposed by Deputy Mayor Matt Paterson and Cr Glen Auricht.
Cr Melky could not recall an occasion when a candidate in an election had been given control of a function held on council property. He said those who attended the reception who are councillors were not attending as councillors. In the second part of the event, a series of closed meetings with the PM, the invitee list was controlled by the organisers.
All this represented a lost opportunity of a proper mayoral reception for the PM, and had yielded none of the benefits of such in terms of announcements for the town.
He said the costs covered by the donation did not include the labour of rostered staff associated with the event, other than the overtime of the Executive Assistant. Council regularly costs out labour involved with in-kind services.
He said the motion was about sending a message, for council not to get embroiled with political campaigns.
It would be interesting to see what happened, he speculated, if the Honourable Warren Snowdon said he’d like to use council facilities for his campaign, invited his leader there to overtly promote his election chances.
Cr Auricht began his contribution by describing the whole motion as “really quite petty”.
Cr Melky took umbrage: “petty” was insulting.
The atmosphere till then had been brittle but controlled. The temperature now rose a little.
“You’re also being insulting,” retorted Cr Auricht.
He went on to evoke the PM’s visit as “a great opportunity” for town however the invitation had come about. Council had been “courteous and gracious” to welcome him and make its facilities available.
He had met the PM briefly though he was there mainly as an observer. Half of the group attending were senior students from the town’s various colleges, whom the PM took time “to meet and greet’’.
The Federal government puts enormous amounts into Alice Springs through a huge variety of programs; the fact that the PM didn’t announce anything special was “not a big deal”, continued Cr Auricht.
But the PM did make some announcements, countered Cr Melky. He was “quite comfortable” promoting the candidate. Council has been compromised.
Cr Cocking, who at the committee meeting, as chair, had said little on the subject, now asked the CEO whether Senator Scullion had been charged for his recent use of the Andy McNeill Room for a community meeting.
Mr Mooney took the question on notice, though he said he frequently, “as a public relations exercise”, waives the fees for the room when it is used for community purposes.
Cr Cocking did not say much, but described the PM’s reception as “highly politicised” and “very much an endorsement and launching of the candidate”.
Deputy Mayor Paterson asked Mr Mooney to confirm that the outstanding balance for the event was now “zero”.
That was so, answered Mr Mooney, providing a breakdown of the total. (See at bottom).
Cr Melky reiterated his points about the costs not taken into account in that reckoning, the labour costs, the venue hire, including the Arunta Room for the series of closed meetings. If these costs had been waived, he wanted that acknowledged.
Mr Mooney said he would consider it “inappropriate” to attribute a cost to use of the Arunta Room no matter who the user (whether the PM or Mr Snowdon)
Cr Cocking said council should make sure that an invoice is raised so that the anonymous donor can declare it for tax purposes [ED:- It was earlier reported that this was a declarable donation – not so.]
At this point standing orders were resumed, which meant that Cr Banks, as mover of the motion, could close the debate.
She said she did not accept that the reception had been in the best interest of the community. She had yet to hear a justification from the CEO that it was other than a political campaign held on council resources, time and money. Councillors de Brenni and Price’s acknowledgement of their conflict of interest was a reflection of its political character.
She argued that local government should be apolitical; she has no political party association herself, but was elected as a representative of the community on the basis of her values.
Although a councillor and a member of the Regional Economic Development Committee she had not been invited to any of the roundtable discussions with the PM. In choosing whom to invite to the REDC’s discussion with the PM, chair of the REDC, Cr de Brenni, had gone outside of that committee’s protocols. All committee members should have been invited, said Cr Banks.
She was concerned about a financial donation being paid to “an event that we haven’t even determined the outcome of”.
It would have been better for that donation to be paid “through the Senator’s office”, she argued.
She was also not comfortable with it being an anonymous donation: “We don’t have confidence that this is not a political involvement itself.”
Council’s involvement with the event breached the Local Government Act, she said, and it sets a precedent for political parties and groups to receive such support in the future: “It opens a can of worms.”
Mayor Ryan then put Cr Banks’s motion to a vote: it was carried.
The split was Crs Banks, Melky, Cocking and Satour for; Mayor Ryan, Deputy Mayor Paterson and Cr Auricht against.
Mayor Ryan quickly moved the meeting on. Whether there will be anything further flowing from the motion’s success is not clear.
For instance, will there be any formal acknowledgement of waived costs, as argued for by Cr Melky? Will there be any formalisation of protocols for future mayoral and civic receptions? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, the successful quartet of councillors did not fare so well when it came to an attempt to revive Cr Melky’s lost motion from the committee meeting to reject voting on apologies from councillors unable to attend their end-of-month (Ordinary) council meetings.
Cr Melky saw this practice as part of an ongoing move towards a mode of “hostile governance” in council.
Although the practice is current in other municipal councils in the NT, as stated by Mayor Ryan, Cr Melky argued that it is not required under the Act and, in particular, there are no guidelines for refusing to accept an apology. He sees that as leaving council open to potential litigation, on grounds of discrimination, for instance.
Cr Cocking couldn’t see the point of the practice, except in relation to consecutive attendance, the main concern of the Act. He feared it would contribute to “potential bullying” and said it was important for councillors to feel comfortable to take leave if they needed to.
Cr de Brenni said his support for the practice was purely because the Department had advised that other municipals were doing it, that it had nothing to do with malice or bullying and that he respected the privacy of all elected members.
Cr Melky’s final comment was that the motion “brings up all of those anxieties that have been created over the last few months”, referring to the still unresolved matters of conflict of conduct complaints.
The complaints against him have been either dismissed or rejected but are still outstanding with regard to Crs Cocking and Catherine Satour. They appear to be particularly taking a toll of Cr Satour who was silent and unhappy during last night’s meeting.
These difficult matters aside, council did manage to get on with other business. It would be a mistake to assume that the meeting was totally dominated by conflict. Councillors heard from and had questions for a deputation on the current state of the local real estate market; they heard about the NT Government’s proposed new Youth Action Plan; they debated the issues around their own proposed greater involvement in youth and community safety issues (there are multiple meetings with other stakeholders coming up).
In fact, someone dropping into council during any one of these civilised interludes and leaving again would think: nothing to see here.
Breakdown of reception costs covered by the anonymous donor:
Sadadeen Catering: $698.80
Coles supermarket: $55.86
Welcome to country: $300
Alice Springs Hospitality: $79.95 for a coffee machine, plus $49.95 for a glass coffee plunger (both items will be used for future events)
Overtime (three and a half hours) for the Executive Assistant: $225.35
Anonymous donation doesn't fix conflict of interest for council
By KIERAN FINNANE