Danger danger, warning warning as novices gain control in September elections

The September local government elections changed the political complexion of many councils and in the Hunter has delivered up a bunch of deniers of climate science and developers. Partially the responsibility of the unattractiveness of NSW Labor, voters have clearly wanted change.

But voters do need to be careful about what they wish for. Winston Churchill famously observed that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” and looking at Newcastle and Wyong, it’s hard to argue.

 The new Lord Mayor of Newcastle is a property developer, Jeff McCloy. Councillor McCloy is a significant and accomplished developer in Newcastle and will now preside over a Council making judgements about his own applications. Employees of the Council would need to seek the general manager’s approval under section 353 of the Local Government Act for anything that conflicted with their Council responsibilities and we assume the Councillor McCloy will make his conflicts public and manage them well.

But unfortunately he comes with some embarrassing baggage. A denier of the science of climate change, on 6 March the Sydney Morning Herald quoted him as contemplating leading a class action suit against Lake Macquarie City Council for “falling for this unjustified, worldwide idiocy about sea level rises”. That would be the projections done by the CSIRO based on econometric analysis of decades of climate data.

And, as a man prepared to put his money where his mouth is, he convened a public meeting of discredited critics of the science like mining company director and University of Adelaide geologist Professor Ian Plimer to preach to those who also don’t want to accept the science. A Professor of geology talking about a different area of science in which he has no expertise or credibility is like going to a dentist or a knee surgeon if you have a problem with your brain.

Anyway, no such class action has begun and Lake Macquarie is not the only Council dealing with new councillors who want to allow people to build on flood prone land and in areas where the science says there will be tidal inundation.

Prior to the election McCloy made it abundantly clear that he was dissatisfied with staff processing DAs at Newcastle - he thought that the redtape culture “is stifling small business and frustrating ratepayers, so I will seek a streamlined approach to development applications and review conditions of consent to ensure we are not placing road-blocks in front of moving our city forward.” I think we’ve heard this before from developers - why do they need to make an application at all?

Clearly Councillor McCloy, denier of climate science, developer and successful businessman has plenty to offer the Council. In a broad ranging attack in the Newcastle Herald on 10 November he wants “to trim Newcastle City Council staff and open up tenders to private enterprise, saying “bizarre” procedures have stunted growth in the city.”

He has already questioned the forthcoming Enterprise Agreement discussions by describing an invitation the Council sent to all employees to make suggestions about what the EA should include as “the most bizarre way to run an EBA or to change an EBA that I have ever seen”.

He also wanted “every job” to be allowed to go to private enterprise for tender.

One of the joys of local government is that people who don’t understand that it operates within a legislative framework often get elected with agendas that sound naive, innocent or sometimes even ignorant and foolish. How would the poor new Mayor know that the current EA has processes regulating tendering and staff reductions?

And how would he know that the only responsibility an elected Council has to staff is found in section 8 Council Charter of the Local Government Act where, amongst other things, it is charged with the responsibility to be “a responsible employer”?

Well, he could ask someone who knew. As a developer, if he wanted to build something he would surround himself with people with proper qualifications, experience and capability. He would rely on their advice, if it fell outside his own expertise, and he wouldn’t assume he knew everything.

That would be a valuable approach to apply at the Council lest he sound like a man who thinks he knows it all but doesn’t understand anything.

The USU has already filed a dispute over these statements and his challenges to processes already enshrined in the existing EA. This sort of sabre rattling is both unattractive and unacceptable. It’s all well and good to be Chichester during the election, but once elected, there are codes of conduct to comply with and legislative frameworks providing restraint and direction.

We will happily join the USU when the dispute comes on in the Commission to ensure that the Council understands that it needs to watch its collective mouth and it is the GM who is responsible the day-to-day operation of staff, and not the Council. We will also need to ensure that the GM understands that his role has suddenly become much, much more challenging.

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