On watching the video of last Tuesday’s meeting, I can see that it was a very civilised, even chummy in parts, gathering of councillors. The friendliness reminds me of a rare cooperative meeting held during Neil Mumme’s time as mayor, when councillors who were normally at each other’s throats, were on the verge of joining hands - and the mayor, with his characteristic humour, commented that there was “a lot of love in the room”. I won’t go so far in my description of this occasion but it was a pleasure to see a cohesion and goodwill that has been missing from the chamber for a long time. And credit must be given to Mayor Innes for her facilitation of this positive tone. It was so positive that in amongst all the goodwill, Councillor Brown offered helpful advice to both Councillors Constable and McGinlay, which was gratefully received on both counts.
And as part of this cooperation each of the four Notices of Motion were passed – three with ease and one with a little pain! As I had suggested would happen, in my previous article, the Notices of Motion by Councillors Innes, Nathan and Constable received unanimous support - how could they not. The uncertain Notice of Motion was that of Councillor McGinlay’s, at pages 11 to 13 of the agenda: the divestment of council’s investments away from the fossil fuel industry. But that also crossed the line with 5 votes for, and 4 against.
Fossil fuels and the divestment of council’s investments: how our councillors voted and why
I am of course very pleased that council resolved to accept Councillor McGinlay’s motion - as it was amended - and with aspects of the debate itself. But I am also disappointed with other aspects of the debate – both with what was said and what was not said. Because of the importance and contentiousness of the basis upon which Councillor McGinlay’s motion is placed – global warming and its causes – and because of the importance of our representatives having given thought to such issues and being able to express those thoughts to those who have elected them, I have presented a précis (by my standards at least) of what each councillor had to say – and not say – on the matter, which was debated for a little more than half and hour.
Taking each councillor in turn:
Councillor McGinlay explained and elaborated upon his motion with great clarity and in my view, very convincingly. To leave the naysayers with absolutely no reason to object to the motion, Councillor McGinlay went as far as replacing “comparable” with “equivalent” at paragraph (b) of the motion. That is, he asked council to give preference to non-fossil fuel investments that are “compliant with Council’s Investment Policy” and “where the investment rate of interest is equivalent to other similar investments that may be on offer to Council at the time of investment.” In other words, his motion had cost-neutral implications. And yet four councillors voted against it! They were Councillors Innes, Nathan, Pollock and Tait. What they had to say – or not say – is described below.
Councillor Mayne strongly supported the motion on two main grounds: that through numerous forums, the community has consistently placed the state of the environment as its number one priority; and on financial grounds, referring in particular to leaders in the coal industry who themselves say that there is no future in coal. Councillor Mayne referred to the danger of Council ending up with “stranded assets” if it continues to invest in institutions that support the fossil fuel industry. In my view he made a very convincing case. For those of you who remain unconvinced about the bleak forecasts for the coal industry, I suggest you take the time to watch the first part of the 7.30 report of 16 February.
Councillor Thomson strongly supported the motion, briefly referring to a recent report on the rapid rate at which the climate is changing and saying that “the cost of doing nothing [about climate change] is way too expensive”.
Councillor Brown addressed the issue of Council’s Investment Policy and asked whether, if the motion is successful, the policy will be amended accordingly? He was told by the Director of Financial and business Development, Anthony O’Reilly, that there would be no need for that to happen. I disagree with that view and agree with Councillor Brown on this. There is clearly a need to amend at least that section of the policy that deals with its “Aims”. Councillor Brown then said he was pleased with Councillor McGinlay’s amendment and while he did not express strong support for the motion – or any support as such that I could make out - it seemed to me that he voted in favour of it because of the amendment that would ensure an “equivalent” rate of interest – rather than “comparable”.
Councillor Constable provided a novel response to Councillor McGinlay’s motion. He delivered a thoughtful presentation of why he supported the motion and told us that he is a “conservationist” but doesn’t “care for the climate change debate as such”. Rather, while he implicitly acknowledged the importance of alternative energy options (by saying that “we are not ignorant of” them), he was most influenced by what he sees as the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground for future generations – and also by the replacement of “comparable” with “equivalent”, in the motion. This is quite a mix of views. He is supportive of the development of alternative energy options; doesn’t “care for the ‘climate change debate”; but supports the use of fossil fuels by future generations. From that mix, one can only deduce that Councillor Constable does not accept the science that points to the significance of the use of fossil fuels in the warming of the planet. Nevertheless, regardless of the distinctions that might be made of the reasoning, his support for the motion was crucial in having it passed.
Councillor Nathan, a person of science, did not express any views in opposition to the basis upon which Councillor McGinlay’s motion rests: that the use of fossil fuels contributes to the warming of the planet. She said that she was “very impressed” with Councillor McGinlay’s “prudent change” to the motion (with “equivalent” put in place of “comparable”) but nonetheless had “considerable concerns” about the cost implications to council. She referred to the current global economic “volatility”, and sought to have the motion deferred, pending the outcome of quarterly monitoring of the proposed “divestment strategy” and that the motion be re-considered in the next financial year, when “we can see what has been happening” on the international stage. Her proposed motion of deferral was seconded by Councillor Tait.
Councillor Mayne spoke convincingly against this motion to defer, arguing that monitoring of council’s investments would take place regardless of whether the motion was successful and that the international volatility referred to by Councillor Nathan has become the “new norm” since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8. He also said, effectively, that there was no basis for the implicit presumption in the deferral motion that at some time in the future the volatility might somehow cease and thereby provide the market stability that Councillor Nathan would like to see before agreeing with Councillor McGinlay’s proposal. Councillor McGinlay of course also argued against the proposed deferral, saying that, again, there will always be volatility in the market and that will “affect financial institutions across the board”.
Councillor Pollock said that he has “a problem with any partisan type policy being put before any local government organisation” and that he agreed with the comments made on the matter of market volatility. He told us that the “ r7feconomy is built around certain pillars” and expressed confidence in council’s current investment strategies and had “distinct reservations about elected folk with not necessarily expertise in selected areas instructing professional people who have that expertise and how they go about their business”. He expressed no views on the (climate change) basis of the motion and simply said that he was “against the deferral and against the motion”.
It is disappointing that Councillor Pollock has the view that matters he regards as “partisan type policy” - being matters of federal or state politics, as he explained - ought not to be brought into the chamber. He is of course referring to The Greens bringing the matter of climate change before council. The parochialism of this view is clear. The enhancement and protection of the environment, and the planet in fact, is a matter that transcends all boundaries, both physical and artificial, including those created by political parties. To exclude from debate any matter, regardless of its validity and importance to our society and environment, simply because some organisation or other also regards it as important, makes no sense.
Councillor Tait expressed no views on the motion. Other than seconding Councillor Nathan’s motion for deferral, and putting his hand up to oppose the motion, he did not involve himself in the debate.
Councillor Innes, the mayor, very disappointingly also expressed no views on the matter and – other than overseeing the debate, as chairperson - involved herself only to the extent of raising her hand against the motion.
In my view, for a councillor to say nothing on a matter that is clearly of importance and controversial, is completely unacceptable. It should be clear to each councillor that they have an obligation to share any thoughts and views they have on such matters, with the electorate. We are entitled to know not only what a councillor’s position is on a subject – as revealed by their vote – but also the reasons behind that position.
Transparency and the Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee (ARIC) Annual Report
The ARIC annual report was presented by its chairman, Mark Baraclough. At the conclusion, Councillor McGinlay drew attention to reference in the report to ARLIC’s claim to adding value and strength to a culture that is “increasingly transparent and accountable”. He asked, given this claim, whether the reports that are produced by ARLIC are accessible to the public. The General Manager responded by saying that “they are not public ... [that] audit committees operate best in a confidential situation where robust discussions can occur ...”. Councillor McGinlay persisted and asked how that approach can be reconciled with the claim to an increasingly transparent culture. Mr Baraclough was then drawn in and put on the spot, at one point referring to the ‘transparency’ enabled by the ARLIC as “referred transparency”. By this I think he means that the work of the ARLIC enables council to be transparent, by revealing the outcomes of the ARLIC’s deliberations, as and when council chooses to do so. Full marks to Councillor McGinlay for putting a spotlight on the nonsense of a claim to an “increasingly transparent” culture by a committee whose meetings are held in camera and whose minutes and reports are kept confidential – unless released by council. And such release would be at the initiation of staff. The outcome of Councillor McGinlay’s question is completely unsatisfactory. Councillors need to tackle this question – and more generally the matter of good administrative practice - collectively. In wrapping up this item, the mayor committed to councillors having a “conversation” on the subject of transparency – including by way of workshopping – hopefully in the very near future. The wheels are starting to turn.
The Community Engagement Framework
This important item, although dealt with fairly smoothly, attracted a number of questions and some critical comment – as well as an agreed amendment, put by Councillor Mayne, to have the matter brought back to the chamber in a year’s time, for review.
Councillor Nathan wanted to know just what discretion is available to councillors in considering the output produced by the Community Engagement Planning Tool (as addressed in my pre-meeting commentary). Her concerns were allayed when it was explained that the final decision on any matter brought before councillors rests with councillors and that the nature and level of any community engagement that might be brought before councillors, as part of a report, would always be in the nature guidelines and recommendations: that the Planning Tool is not prescriptive.
Both Councillors Mayne and McGinlay expressed concerns relating to the ranking, of “1”, assigned by the Planning Tool to activities which include local events, licences and leases, etc. I also raised this matter in my pre-meeting commentary and expressed the view that this categorisation of such activities ignores the critically important matter of the nature of the events in questions. The Planning Tool needs to be improved to take account of this shortcoming. Councillors were again assured that the ranking number produced by the ‘tool’ would be considered to be no more than a guideline. Nonetheless, this is an issue that needs to be addressed and resolved – before this categorisation becomes entrenched.
You will see from Council’s website that – following the meeting - the Community Engagement Framework is referred to as “providing guidance for best practice in planning, designing and evaluating community engagement activities”. The advice also quotes the General Manager as having said that “Council was committed to engaging with the community, however it was important to remember that engagement was a two-way street. Council works hard at communicating to the community through many different channels but the community also has a role to play. ... We ask community members to proactively access information, get involved in Council activities, be prepared to listen to new ideas and share their thoughts and feedback with us.”
I find the advice that we, the community, should “proactively access information”, galling. After all, it is council, and all government agencies in NSW, that are themselves obliged to proactively release information to the community. The relevant legislation makes it perfectly clear. And let us keep in mind that even when members of the community do “proactively” seek access to information, that access is denied even when, on appeal from the applicant, the Information Commissioner herself recommends release of the sought-after information. So, an applicant for access to information needs to not only be very proactive but to also be unrelenting in pursuit of the information.
The remaining agenda items were sailed through in no time at all.
And finally, I must acknowledge recent comments and questions from possibly the most erudite of The Beagle’s contributors. He has asked a number of questions in relation to Councillor Constable’s Notice of Motion on the Princes and Kings Highways. For the sake of completeness and convenience, here is what he had to say:
While you have indicated support for Clr Constable's motion to find out what are the state and federal strategies (if any!) for road access to our shire, it is unlike you to have missed the fact that there are already, and for many years, a number of councillors delegated to belong to attend and meetings of various bodies, some of which are focused on transport, development and lobbying government.
What have we heard from these delegates about the matters raised by Clr Constable's motion? If they haven't reported, why not? If these bodies aren't concerned with such issues, why not? If these matters hadn't been raised by them, why not?
Why are we spending six-figure sums annually to belong to and send delegates to these bodies if their focus is not on such vital strategic issues not just for us but for other shires too?............or are we sending the wrong delegates?
I hope Clr Constable's motion is successful and in the future we see more of a similar vein focused on water security, affordable air freight and passenger services, decentralisation, etc., etc., and other strategic factors affecting our shire's future.
My response is that Perry Mason would be proud of you Jeff. Your questions need to be answered by staff and councillors.