We want free speech

FRUSTRATED at being unable to speak her mind on council matters publicly Perth councillor Jemma Green is calling for an investigation in to whether the city’s rules gagging councillors could be overridden by higher laws.

The WA local government act dictates that the mayor is the only elected member who can speak on “behalf” of the city, but is silent about whether councillors can give their personal opinion.

Perth is one of very few to interpret the rule so narrowly as to prevent councillors speaking about council matters.

Once a decision has been made they’re required to support it, whereas in neighbouring domains councillors can freely explain what they think of a decision (as long they are clear they are not speaking for the council and are not catty about the decision).

Cr Green says she wants legal advice on whether the city’s ruling is consistent with federal and constitutional laws on freedom of speech.

“It’s important to understand whether we’ve created a policy that’s in contravention of other laws.”

Free speech is an amorphous beast in Australia which has no explicit bill of rights like the US, but key high court rulings have found that because our constitution states we’re a democracy that implies we have the right to freely speak about political matters.

“I don’t think anyone has been fettered by this policy,” CEO Martin Mileham told this week’s finance and administration committee meeting.

“That is not my experience,” Cr Harley retorted.

When first elected he said he was given conflicting advice by the then-CEO Gary Stevenson, who told him: “You have freedom of speech, but you cannot talk about any council issues with the media.”

There had been occasions when other councillors tried to stop him from criticising the clothing allowance by citing the policy and warning him they’d report to the local government standard body if he didn’t stay quiet.

Staff were wary of potentially spending thousands of dollars on legal advice, so the committee instead resolved to go to the local government department for advice, along with seeking an opinion from the state solicitor’s office.

by DAVID BELL

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