This document was written without fear or favour, by The Echo editor Hans Lovejoy for the politically curious who are considering a tilt at public life, or those who are interested in the inner workings of local politics.
My intention is to hopefully inform and engage aspiring political actors so they serve a long and fruitful career. In the most simplest term, political actors are either reformers, or part of the problem.
The complex and tedious local government bureaucratic and legal system, the media, and public life are all explored. What fun!
As most councillors are elected without an insight into any of that, this document attempts to prepare you for a life of conflict management and compromise.
What other info is available on this important topic? The state government (The Department the Office of Local Government) have published a document called Stand for Your Community – Candidate Guide.
Yet that info is far from comprehensive. In fact, it’s pretty much a useless puff piece on the merits of public life.
About Echo editor Hans Lovejoy:
Hans is the third editor of The Echo, which has been part of the Byron Shire social fabric since 1986. He is a long-time local and son of co-founder David, and works alongside Aslan Shand, daughter of founder Nicholas Shand.
His first foray with reporting resulted in Byron Council’s former General Manager (GM) Graham Faulkner making complaints against him to the Press Council – that case was dismissed and soon after, Faulkner resigned. Most councillors have reacted tersely to being prodded by him. Otherwise he’s actually harmless.
Veteran broadcaster Kerry O’Brien says The Echo is “genuinely independent” and “nicely idiosyncratic” (from The Monthly magazine, July 2019).
Intro – So you want to be a councillor?
Amendments and foreshadowed motions
Development Applications (DAs)
Ethics and maintaining/cultivating integrity
Pecuniary and non pecuniary interests
Meeting with developers, or “influencers”
How to safely handle the media’s reptiles
The Echo editor’s perspective on governance
The role of media and politics is different
Tips on how to handle the media
The Echo’s simple guide for restoring public confidence in Byron Shire Council
As a potential councillor, you are probably thinking “Wow, I’d love to make positive changes and contribute to my community, and the best way to do that is by volunteering for a low paid, high profile job. It might even offer me further opportunities and connections”.
Breaking perceptions, expectations and ego is one aim of this document. Another aim is to inform you of what is expected in terms of your role (including community expectations) the knowledge needed of inner council workings, as well as the role of the media.
The work of a councillor can be glamorous but usually isn’t. After being elected, councillors learn fast that there is very little glamour involved. A cursory look at where past councillors are now will explain a lot.
If elected, you will soon realise you are but a small cog in a massive system, bound by poorly written complex laws aimed at maximising profit through the exploitation of environment and residential amenity. Perhaps that sits okay with you. After all, you have assessed the field, considered what is at stake and are prepared to make concessions.
The art of politics is compromise. What is not known, however, is how public perception will play out while you carry out that compromise.
“Compromise makes a good umbrella but a poor roof” – US poet James Russell Lowell (1819 –1891)
The most important thing to remember is that you are elected to represent residents, not local or state bureaucrats or developers. When you blur that line, your credibility will be in question.
How will the residents know whether you represent them? Unless you have a huge Twitter following, it will be through the fickle narrow lens of the media.
The real test is how you vote, it’s not what you say in a council meeting or in the media, the test will be how you vote on particular issues.
As an aspirational political actor, it’s important to examine your own perceptions, ethics, expectations and ego involvement before throwing yourself at the mercy of the public. It’s either going to happen now, or it will be done over many months or years, if you get elected.
As a public figure, you will become a punching bag for the public, whether you like it or not. Your email, phone and photo becomes public. Crazy nutbags will accuse you of all sorts of things. And your longevity as a public figure will depend on you assessing their critique within reason and discarding it when it doesn’t align with community expectations and the confines of law. It’s important to use time wisely; know how to keep your powder dry and when to let things go. Not every argument is winnable, nor should it be.
What battles are you likely to win, and how it will be perceived by the public? Will micro-managing an online troll attack be your best use of time? When is it appropriate to ignore a considerable petition on an inappropriate development from affected residents? These types of challenges will test and possibly break you as a political actor.
Presumably you have already read the Art Of War by Sun Tzu, and The Prince by Machiavelli, yet there will be many other resources you will need to lean upon to get through a Council term.
Don’t Think of An Elephant (2004) by George Lakoff is also a good start. It centres on linguistics and how it influences societies. Framing a debate is at the core of politics. Essential viewing of course is every episode of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. That goes for House Of Cards (both US and UK), The Thick Of It (UK) and ABC’s Utopia.
There are so many expectations of you as a councillor. The most important being that you were elected to represent all residents with matters in accordance with clear policy (law). Transparent and good process, planning and infrastructure (i.e. roads) have been battlegrounds in the past and it’s unlikely those issues will disappear.
A grounding in budget analysis, accounting and economics is also very advantageous. It’s a weak area for many councillors.
Essential for anyone planning putting themselves forward for election is a comprehensive understanding of the role and responsibilities. Very few come to the job prepared.
It’s essential to attend council meetings and understand how the processes work and to read council agendas prior to putting yourself forward. It’s also worthwhile to be on a council committee, to understand how the input of the community is developed and inputs to council decision making.
If you do this, it may dissuade you from putting yourself forward. But, if you are committed and up for the challenge, the most important message is BE PREPARED!
Being educated on legislation and policy is key
Council decision making is always considered in the context of how courts will interpret those actions. As laws and precedent are always changing, it’s important to have a reasonable understanding of law and always keep up to date with current laws.
NSW state laws are considered above council polices in any legal setting, which include local environment plans (LEPs), development control plans (DCPs) and associated forward planning strategies (Residential Strategies, Rural Land Use Strategy for example).
The most important pieces of legislation to know are the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and Local Government Act 1993.
The short names are the EP&A Act and the LG ACT.
There is more information on this and how residents can protect their amenity at www.echo.net.au/2019/03/nimby-guide/
Let’s quiz ourselves on legislation!
The following quiz on these Acts is aimed at helping you administrate local government:
What section of the Local Government Act 1993 deals with the role of the general manager?
What section of the Local Government Act 1993 defines the role of mayors and councillors?
What section of the Local Government Act 1993 deals with code of conduct matters?
What section of the Local Government Act 1993 deals with the code of meeting practice?
What section of the Local Government Act 1993 deals with the the ‘General power of the council to delegate’?
What section of the Local Government Act 1993 deals with the guiding principles for councils? Answer – under Chapter 3 Principles for local government, Section 8A (2) (d) it states: ‘Councils should consider the principles of ecologically sustainable development’.
What section of the Local Government Act 1993 deals with transparency and accountability? Answer – under Chapter 3 Principles for local government, Section 8A (2) (e) it states ‘Council decision-making should be transparent and decision-makers are to be accountable for decisions and omissions’.
Other areas covered with the LGA Act include how are councils made accountable for their actions, strategic planning, financial management, the powers to suspend Council, honesty and disclosure of interests, how rates are applied etc.
What’s Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD)?
It’s defined under The Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991, Part 3, Section 6, clause (2).
In an environmentally aware shire like Byron, it’s vital to understand what Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) means as many pieces of legislation require this consideration. The way in which it is considered or investigated is up to the councillors and the staff, but ultimately it is the elected body that will be held to account if decisions result in actions that threaten the environment or fail to consider social or economic consequences. The Byron bypass debacle is one example.
In relation to community consultation, Byron Shire Council has adopted the internationally recognised guidance of IAP2 (www.iap2.org) for community engagement and consultation. It’s important to recognise that when the council engages the community for comment on key issues, it is the responsibility of council to ensure that it informs them as to the options, responsibilities and consequences of decisions. Without informed consultation and engagement, feedback can be skewed and only deliver personal viewpoints, interests or opinions and that may not be helpful or relevant.
Inside the political tent
Like the 1999 movie Fight Club where you don’t speak about Fight Club, speaking to the media or public of the inner workings of bureaucracy is not looked upon favourably by those within government.
It’s a political term called “inside the tent”. To speak of tent secrets to outsiders means you won’t be included in that club and you will forever be an outsider. It also makes attending staff Christmas parties uncomfortable.
Yet sharing what’s going on in the tent is one of the main jobs of a good councillor.
To the educated public (such as Byron Shire), outsiders are more valued than those who have aligned themselves to those within the tent.
And to those inside the tent, outsiders are a threat. It’s been that way since the beginning of time, so it’s probably worth considering where you sit on this. Fence sitters can balance for a short while, but eventually they will topple to one side or the other.
Most political actors inevitably slide into the tent then eventually spat out.
One of the most obvious mistakes councillors make is that they think that staff’s “professional advice” is beyond scrutiny and more informed than those pesky yokel bush-lawyer types who keep badgering you.
It’s easy to forget that while you are inside the tent of a council, you are not there for the long term and you were sent there by the folk outside the tent. From an egoic point of view, it will be a big blow to have felt important and powerful inside the tent and then, after losing an election, you are neither.
Most executive staff, however, will be there long after you leave. They get paid about ten times more than you, and receive much less scrutiny than you. They are protected by unions and receive long service, sick pay and maternity leave. You will not, because Byron Shire Council, for example, is not of the size that can afford such luxuries.
So – are you “Council”?
A common mistake by councillors is thinking that they “are” their council. In other words, if there is criticism of your council, would you jump to its defence immediately? The over-identification of this role has been a common theme for past councillors.
Past councillors have defended many aspects of a large organisation that they are only briefly a part of. It’s a waste of yours and everyone’s time to pursue such activities.
Your ability to think critically and represent residents, versus accepting staff recommendations and advice, is where the action is. And while you probably won’t like it, the value of your knowledge and willingness or unwillingness to learn will be held to high scrutiny.
For example, if planning staff reports are inadequate (which they often are), will you ask for improvements? When staff produce inadequate reports, the credibility of the entire organisation suffers.
Generally there are only a few of the public who can distinguish a council from its councillors. Most of the voting public perceive Council as one entity. But in a politically aware shire like Byron you are taking a gamble if you think only a few will distinguish Council from councillors and staff.
Councillors are ultimately responsible for the direction of a council and are accountable to the public. Staff are generally not.
Remember: staff are your frenemy.
Quick bit of history
Historically, in Byron Shire the previous 2012–2016 right wing pro development majority were obliterated in the 2016 election; Nationals aligned Cr Alan Hunter was the only re-elected conservative candidate.
The attitude of that previous 2012–2016 council majority was that everyone was out to attack them and that no one understood what great work they were doing. Once there is public and media pressure upon councillors, a tendency emerges where they only listen to those in their immediate circles (the quiet majority), and dismiss everyone else as a “noisy minority”. This appears to have happened to the current Byron council majority (2016–20).
There is no other measure of public opinion other than the ballot box, and believing your circle/s is done at your own peril. This is perhaps one of the most common political mistakes made: ignoring or rejecting angrily to criticism without addressing it.
A glimpse of good governance can be achieved when political actors understand the dark arts of policy and law as much as bureaucrats.
And once political actors have that knowledge, they need to actually use it to reflect the wishes of the community. The continuing erosion of trust and respect for politicians is because most lack this knowledge and instead desire to be accepted inside the tent, or treat the privileged position as a popularity contest. Since the beginning of time, the tent uses weak political actors up and then spits them out. There are many willing participants to keep the machine well oiled. Which political actor will you be? A reformer, or part of the problem?
The other key mistake councillors make is not having trusted advisors within the community to provide you with analysis of the information that is being presented in the staff reports.
It’s a reality that many staff, particularly those in the higher positions of authority, don’t have historical knowledge. The community does, and that’s why it’s important to have contact with informed residents. There are many in any community who have served on council, on committees and or have professional expertise and have reviewed the documents that are developed by staff and consultants. This should be seen as a positive input to your role and undoubtedly could cause some angst if staff reports are questioned by you on the basis of external information. This is a decision each individual must make, whether to accept the information provided by staff without questioning, or to seek other views and be bold enough to challenge staff if warranted.
In November 9, 2016 The Echo published a piece describing each Byron Shire Council department, both structurally and financially. While now outdated, it gives an insight into how Council functions. It’s called “A peek inside a local business with a $73m a year budget.”
At the time, Council’s governance structure included the following departments and sub departments. Most councils would have a similar structure:
• Corporate/ Community Services – Financial Services, Councillor Services, Governance Services, Information Services, Community Development, Children’s Services (Sandhills), Children’s Services – Other, Public Libraries
• Infrastructure Services – Supervision and Administration, Asset Management Planning, Projects & Commercial Development, Emergency Services & Floods, Depot and Fleet Management, Local Roads & Drainage, Roads & Maritime Services (RMS), Quarries, Open Space & Recreation, Cavanbah Centre, Waste & Recycling Services, First Sun Holiday Park, Suffolk Holiday Park, Facilities Management, Water Fund, Sewerage Fund
• Sustainable Environment & Economy – Economic Development, Land & Natural Environment, Environment & Compliance Services, Development & Certification.
The agenda is supposed to be published nine days before the meeting. If a councillor wants to lodge business (eg a Notice of Motion or a formal question), their cut-off is a week earlier than that.
The meeting is chaired by the mayor and, after public access, he or she invites each councillor to grab one of the many staff reports. That councillor then becomes mover of the Motion on that business. They can either support or amend the staff recommendation. Once everybody has grabbed their first preference, a second round is offered and so on until councillors ‘own’ all the reports they wish.
Reports not grabbed by a councillor are deemed to be resolved exactly as drafted in the staff recommendation. Let’s repeat that – staff recommendations – on any topic that is not debated/voted – are “resolved” as written. That’s how bureaucracy works, or doesn’t.
Notices of Motion (NoMs) are dealt with first, and each one are introduced by the councillor who lodged it. Staff will have appended their comments on the matter to the councillors own. The author of the NoM moves it as printed or with changes, and needs a seconder for it be considered.
As with any motion of council, the mover speaks first, followed by debate between councillors, alternating between for and against the motion. Debate is exhausted when they run out of speakers either ‘For or Against’. The mover then wraps up with a final speech and the vote takes place.
Amendments and foreshadowed motions
At any time prior to the wrap-up, a councillor can lodge an amendment or foreshadow one. They can also foreshadow a new motion that will get dealt with after the main motion. An amendment must not substantially alter a motion. If it would, a foreshadowed motion is required, but still on a related topic.
An unrelated motion out of the blue is not allowed unless it can satisfy a check for urgency. Unrelated and non-urgent business has to be lodged for a subsequent meeting. The best way a councillor can get support for an urgent motion is to inform the rest of council and staff as early as possible that they intend to move the urgent motion at an up-coming meeting.
Voting often includes resolving between two versions – the motion versus the amendment. The winning version of that vote becomes the motion and, as long as no further amendments have been foreshadowed, the motion is ‘put’. The vote on that motion determines whether a Resolution is made or not.
The mayor lists the names of councillors who voted for and against the motion, which appears on the screen for all to see. The display on the screen is of the minutes as they are drafted. If later there is a dispute over the draft minutes, staff go back to the audio record of the meeting for clarification. That audio is also available to the public on the council’s website.
Councillors can ask questions of the mover, of staff, or of experts at any time. The mover of the motion determines whether to include any suggestions for re-wording the motion. Councillors are encouraged to make such suggestions before meetings rather than at them, to save meeting time.
It’s then rinse and repeat until there are no more agenda items. Urgent Motions are usually dealt with at the end of the meeting. The meeting has an end time – (for example 6pm if it began at 9am). That can be extended by an hour via a ‘procedural’ motion of the council, but only extended once.
It’s worth noting that the level of staff reports and intellectual capacity of elected representatives is fairly standard across all levels government (local, state and federal). There is brilliance and breathless idiocy everywhere. Byron Shire residents might expect better, but there has rarely been anything other than a pro-development at the cost of the environment agenda, as prescribed by the NSW government.
Public Access is where the public tell you how wonderful you are, or in most cases, aren’t. It is also an opportunity for developers, and planners on behalf of developers, to lobby you to accept a DA.
During the 2016 Byron Shire Council election lead up, The Echo asked many questions around transparency and accountability. While all councillors made noises of support, very little has been enacted. In fact, at the October 2019 meeting, former Greens mayor and NSW MLC Jan Barham was banned from speaking on two items during public access, owing to the Greens-led majority enacting a new rule where individuals can only speak once, regardless of who they are representing.
To learn more, including how to deal with complaints with procedures, visit Council’s Code of Meeting Practice.
Committees are one way in which a council interacts with the public. They comprise of community volunteers with an interest or skill in that committee and they debate and vote on motions with select staff and councillors.
There are Advisory Committees, Project Reference Groups (PRGs), Section 355 committees, boards of management and regional committees.
From Council’s website: “These areas cover finance, asset management and systems integrity (Internal Audit), communications with Council residents and stakeholders, and the retention and development of creative industries, markets, and home-based businesses”.
Councillors commit themselves to many of these committees, and the meeting results and reports can inform and direct a council meeting agenda. These committees run their meetings similar to a council’s ordinary meetings.
For more visit www.byron.nsw.gov.au/Council/Committees-and-groups.
Who holds the power? How a council’s General Manager wields it within council
Who is responsible for the actions of Council as a whole?
Putting its operations simply, elected councillors create policy, staff enact it, and the result is a rainbow of good governance.
Yet as we have previously found out, councillors who haven’t grasped what staff actually do or what powers they themselves have can lead to trust deficits, which leads to community solutions panels and other measures aimed at distracting the public from the core issue.
That core issue is: ‘who has the power and how is it being used’?
So with that in mind, what power sharing arrangements are there between the elected councillors and the unelected staff?
There are a lot of areas where councillors allow staff to control and manage a council’s affairs rather than manage everything themselves (an impossibility).
The term is called delegated authority, which is defined under Part 3, 377 of the Local Government Act 1993 (LGA).
Councillors give the GM delegated authority to control council matters, and there are four main ways it affects the community – development applications (DAs), legal proceedings (defending and prosecuting), awarding tenders (council-led infrastructure projects, for example).
There are other authorities delegated to the GM (by councillor resolution), such as appointing community members to panels and committees.
According to the LGA 1993, authority that cannot be delegated by councillors includes making a rate (ie setting the rates each year), charges and fees, classifying or reclassifying public land, the compulsory acquiring, purchasing, selling, exchanging or surrendering of any land or other property and borrowing money.
Development Applications (DAs)
The Byron Shire Council majority of 2016–2020 gave the GM (and therefore staff) many powers across the board – development applications (DAs), legal proceedings (defending and prosecuting) and awarding tenders and Council-led infrastructure projects.
For example the Byron GM and his staff can determine DAs that are valued at up to $10m (a value that is determined by a quantity surveyor), unless staff consider the DA needs to go before councillors.
The Echo has repeatedly asked Byron Shire Council staff, for example, to explain what would trigger staff to refer a matter to councillors, but are yet to receive a reply.
Staff are also delegated to exercise their discretion and allow breaches of regulations to occur with DAs that are contentious. This could be blocking a neighbour’s solar access or views with a double storey dwelling, for example. It should be said again that councillors have the power to exert more oversight with DAs, or enact a policy of community expectations around DAs. The process for them to oversee any DA is the Planning Review Committee, where only a few councillors are members. It appears staff decide which DAs come before the Planning Review Committee for the 2016–2020 Byron Council.
Legal challenges (both prosecuting and defence) are handled by Byron Council’s legal department under the General Manager’s delegated authority.
Giving legal powers to staff does not always produce a favourable outcome – as The Echo reported in November 2017, then GM Ken Gainger attempted to “force a Byron Bay residents group to supply membership and donor names and addresses through the courts – all without informing councillors”.
The scope of delegated authority for the General Manager of Byron Council in respect of legal proceedings was last amended at the August 2, 2018 meeting.
From the staff report: ‘Council sources all of its legal advices and conducts all of its legal proceedings, other than those involving staff personnel matters, through its internal Legal Services Team’.
‘Council’s Legal Services Team has been operational since 2 February 2015. The team was created as part of an organisational restructure, and comprises the Legal Counsel, the Solicitor (both of whom are admitted to practice in New South Wales) and the Legal Services Support Officer.
‘The team sits within Council’s Corporate and Community Services Directorate.
‘Since 22 July 2016, the team has reported to the General Manager directly through the Director Corporate and Community Services.
‘The work of the team includes the provision of professional advice across Council, court appearances and instructing Council’s external solicitors.
‘Commencement of legal proceedings:
‘Delegation to commence legal proceedings is limited to those proceedings in which Council’s solicitors estimate, in writing, that the legal costs for the proceedings will be less than $50,000.
‘Settlement of legal proceedings:
‘The delegations do not include:
• ‘Power to settle legal proceedings for payment of less than 50 per cent of Council’s original or amended claim.
• ‘Power to enter into consent orders in the Land and Environment Court in relation to development for which the General Manager would not otherwise be able to grant consent under delegation.
• ‘Council’s delegated authority was not implemented until November 2017 when the Instrument of delegation was signed by both the Mayor and the General Manager. There is consistency between the pre-and post 21 September 2017 delegations concerning legal proceedings, in that, any limitation on the General Manager’s delegated authority applies only the commencement of legal proceedings’.
Arguably a wealthy developer or a group of them, whose net worth is in the billions, could pose a threat to a small Council like Byron.
It occurred in 2016, where the state government did not support Council after very wealthy Belongil landowners took Council to court over beach rock walls.
In that Belongil case, those councillors surrendered their powers to an insurer whose aim as an insurer is to minimise their own costs. The wider picture of whether beaches should be handed over to the wealthy elite for their own use was lost, and that the historical application of planning rules had been consistently applied by council. Consistency is a key issue in decision making; once it is broken then the past ‘wins’ or ‘defence’ can be lost.
According to Byron Shire Council’s legal counsel Ralph James, the General Manager has delegated authority to accept tenders.
‘This is provided for in the Local Government Act 1993.
‘The delegation of authority is limited to:
1. Capital works specifically itemised in a budget approved by Council (as long as the tended amount falls within the approved budget); or
2. Renewal of existing contracts; or
3. Projects that are less than $250,000 ex GST in value’.
Councillors at any time can move a motion to take greater control of a tender process or appointment, providing it meets requirements of the Local Government Act 1993.
Ethics and maintaining/cultivating integrity
“In law, a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics, he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so” –Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
Although you may have the best intentions and a track record of integrity, once you enter the political tent, you will be forever changed. How will you handle this change? Will you strive for complete transparency and accountability, or will there be limits? What will those limits be? Restoring public faith in politics should be the number one priority to any aspiring political actor, yet the desire to achieve something while inside the tent can overcome that aspiration. Given the public’s view of politics in this area, it is probably worth reflecting upon. One thing is for certain: any change comes at a snail’s pace and vested interests will create obstacles.
Idealism vs pragmatism will play a large part in any decision making!
Who is your daddy? Unless you are self-made millionaire, you will need donations to get you elected.
The Echo has previously asked all candidates standing for Byron Shire Council elections where their campaign money has come from, and will continue to do so in the interests of transparency.
According to the AEC, political donations, loans or indirect campaign contributions are unlawful for the following reasons:
- Failure to record details of a reportable political donation
- Anonymous reportable political donations
- Identity of donors
- Indirect campaign contributions valued at more than the allowable amount
- Political donations to more than three third-party campaigners
- Political donations by a party etc to independent candidates
- Failure to record details of reportable loans
- Prohibited donors
- Donations exceeding the caps
Code of conduct
Council’s code of conduct is the latest document to be reformed by the state government, and allows councillors to vote on a matter even if they hold a pecuniary interest if approved by the minister for Local Government. Like the LEP, the state government has introduced a state-wide code template.
This is good news for those wanting to vote on a matter who also have a pecuniary interest.
Clause 5.28 of the Code of Conduct reads, “The minister for Local Government may, conditionally or unconditionally, allow a council committee member who has a pecuniary interest in a matter with which the council is concerned to be present at a meeting of the committee, to take part in the consideration or discussion of the matter and to vote on the matter if the minister is of the opinion that it is in the interests of the electors for the area to do so”.
It raises the question of how long it will be until this clause will be abused by a developer-friendly councillor. Yet the new code will require councillors ‘to disclose in their returns of interests whether they are a property developer or a close associate of a property developer’.
Owing to public outrage, donations from property developers to state MPs were banned in NSW in 2010. Fairfax (Nine) reports that, ‘The same section of the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act that bans donations from developers also bans donations from the alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries’.
Should this ban be extended to the mining sector, where the Minerals Council have huge influence at the state and federal government level? You decide.
For more visit www.olg.nsw.gov.au/strengthening-local-government/conduct-and-governance/model-code-of-conduct
What’s a pecuniary and non-pecuniary interest?
According to the Model Code of Conduct for Local Councils in NSW 2018, “A pecuniary interest is an interest that you have in a matter because of a reasonable likelihood or expectation of appreciable financial gain or loss to you or a person referred to in clause 4.3”.
The code describes a non-pecuniary interests as “private or personal interests a council official has that do not amount to a pecuniary interest as defined in clause 4.1 of this code. These commonly arise out of family or personal relationships, or out of involvement in sporting, social, religious or other cultural groups and associations, and may include an interest of a financial nature”.
Meeting with developers, or “influencers”
As Byron’s potholed road to hell is paved with good intentions, how will you deal with developers?
There is an expectation and requirement that councillors should not meet developers in private, as it undermines the public trust. There will never be an end to developers wanting to influence you. They want you to support their fantastic proposals, of course. Some of these proposals will breach Council planning policies while offering sustainable initiatives as a trade off. If you believe it is appropriate to meet a developer (it’s actually not a requirement to do so as mayor or councillor), be sure a staff member and another councillor is present. This is vital to upholding public trust. You may think the presence of staff is all that is required, yet if staff have their own agendas, that does not engender public trust and confidence.
How to safely handle the media reptiles
The public’s understanding of governance (and most things) is viewed only through the narrow lens of the media. Unless you have more Twitter followers than the media, you will be at the mercy of the media to represent and misrepresent the events you debate and vote upon.
In Byron Shire, there is the independent BayFM and independent Byron Shire Echo.
Since the Byron News and Northern Star (Murdoch) went online, and provides limited political analysis and reporting, you are faced with the independents.
BayFM regularly airs good quality political interviews and content.
The Echo has been part of the local media landscape since 1986. It was founded after police cannabis raids up in Main Arm in the years preceding. No media wanted to report on residents being intimidated and harassed by police. They swooped in with helicopters and armed swat teams, dogs and guns. The roads were closed and the locals terrorised. The Echo’s reason for being owes itself to social injustice and environmental campaigns. To this day, the second generation editor is very keen on continuing that cause, and has a particular interest in social equity and responsible, transparent governance.
This is the cornerstone of The Echo ethos and is also part of the social fabric of Byron Shire.
The Echo editor’s perspective on governance
As Echo editor, I have had amicable relationships with all councillors when they are first elected. And then over time, some of those relationships become strained, and others can become even hostile. The reason of course is that I am not inside the Council tent, nor am I interested in climbing a political or corporate ladder.
As Echo editor, I am aware that charm without substance is a major threat to good governance, and am not interested in pursuing relationships or friendships with any elected political actor because I know that would compromise my role.
My role, of course, is to provide uncompromising news and analysis, without fear or favour.
I believe that the community is best served by this approach.
By way of background, I am the third editor and the son of David Lovejoy, one of The Echo founders. I went to Mullumbimby High School and my family came to this area when I was 14, so of course I have a keen interest in this area.
I was not trained as an editor nor a journalist, but over the last eight years as editor, I have gained a keen interest and knowledge in how power works, or doesn’t. Understanding law, planning and psychology is very useful. Science, art and music are fun too.
A 2016–2020 Greens councillor accused me of not being a “real” journalist because of this. Yet, if I didn’t do my job properly in this small and vocal community, I wouldn’t keep it. Like them.
I am very interested in seeing transparency and good governance, because that provides the grounds for trust and a cohesive society. There’s only been a few glimpses of such events throughout history, but is always worth pursuing.
I have witnessed councillors abandon their stated ideals of inclusiveness and transparency after being elected to becoming hostile and belligerent towards me and sections of the community. From my perspective, I have not changed in my ideal of transparency and good governance – I believe it’s those who have been influenced within the political tent who have. And that creates conflict.
Like law, those in the media are in the conflict business. At its highest ideal, the media is to present and critique those in power as well as the contest of ideas.
As Lord John Dalberg-Acton said in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority”.
At a local government level, the quote could read, “Moderate power tends to corrupt the mediocre.”
Here’s some others: “The true measure of a man is the degree to which he has managed to subjugate his ego” – Albert Einstein’
“The measure of a man is what he does with power” – Plato
“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The role of media and politics is different
Social capital, or reputation, within Council is essential in maintaining relevance and trust within the community. Social capital is a currency you earn over time through consistent actions that generate trust. Perhaps social capital the only the similar thing between media and politics.
It’s always a surprise to hear from a seasoned politician who challenges The Echo’s ‘news’ coverage only to discover they were reading ‘comment’. Clearly if a politician doesn’t know the difference, then the vast majority of the population won’t. And that is part of the mystery of the printed word, and perhaps reflects how the clergy maintained control for such a long time.
The Echo, like media should, labels comment, articles and news separately.
There has also been a mistaken assumption that as editor, I need to attend every opening and event.
There is actually no expectation I am required to fulfil other than to provide the community with reporting that is fearless and without favour (and hopefully fair). That provides trust and readership.
I’ve been accused by former councillors of not ‘representing the community’. Regardless, I have a parallel role in keeping the powerful to account. If I am a threat to them, then good. That is how a healthy democracy functions.
Being off and on record
Like politicians and bureaucrats, never trust any journo. Make sure you know what is on and off record with all of them. Always. Off record information is vital for journalists of course.
Private emails and text messages from political actors are considered to be on record, unless advised otherwise.
As editor, I have no interest in private squabbles – everything I say about any political actor is public.
There is scope of course to sort out any issue in private, however if it is only an opportunity to let off steam, then I am not interested. There’s always a therapist available. Everything should be kept on the public record to maintain the public trust.
The words “public interest” are used by journalists in broad terms, and has no real meaning other than what the journalist thinks is the “public interest”. What “interests the public” is not the “public interest”.
Have you exploded your ego and demolished your sense of self through DMT or mescaline? Have you done MDMA or pot? How much reading other than political-related material have you done? Is there poetry, science, nature, art and music in your life? What is your spiritual practice, and how much travel have you done? Is it extensive?
I have asked a few political actors how they unwind or turn off. They replied that they don’t. Understanding how to turn off and occupy yourself with the better aspects of humanity and nature is key to a long career.
Can you maintain your cool in the face of overwhelming hostility? What experience have you had with that? If not much, you may want to explore where your vulnerabilities are. Breaking open your head is perhaps the best way to prepare yourself for public life. Either you do it yourself or the public and media will do it for you.
Do you lean towards being emotional or transactional? What’s your understanding of fact and truth?
Remember: “The louder the monkey, the smaller its balls”.
Public and private life
As a political actor, there will be investigations into your past, so be prepared.
What skeletons lurk? Are they likely to become an issue? No matter really – in these times of political ugliness, anyone can win an election based on a shocking past of infidelity, failed marriages, illegitimate children, bankruptcies, shonky business deals and monies owed to debtors. It appears you can be all that, plus collude with a foreign power and be a nasty individual who lies openly and calls all opponents an enemy of the state and the fake news.
While there’s many actors who aspire to the tyrannical behaviour of the 45th US president, not many will be able to achieve that level of thuggishness.
Here’s an interesting take by Crikey’s Bernard Keane on how to handle political pressure with an affair ‘scandal’:
“When a public figure immediately clarifies personal matters, they show a high degree of self-awareness about the fact their life is often seen as public property. Changes in relationships are not private affairs when politicians are seen publicly (and often campaigning) with family; this is especially true when the politician’s family is used in political advertising and advocacy for ‘traditional family values’. The public will make allowances for human flaws, but voters have a right to note hypocrisy”.
“So, how should it be done? Reflect not just on what you say and how you say it, but also to whom you want to say it. Distributing the story everywhere via media release on the same day often dampens the enthusiasm for a follow up. Being honest and telling everybody that might want to know simply makes it less likely to blow up in the same way.
“Look at the way former senator Scott Ludlam announced his leave from parliamentary duties to deal with mental health issues. Any insider gossip or tabloid snooping was immediately killed by a short and honest statement about the situation; there was little follow-up beyond praise for his forthrightness.
“Taking the initiative and telling the story before your personal life becomes an excavation site for the nation’s media means that you just might make yourself less interesting for five minutes. Then you can get on with dealing with your “private stuff”.”
Bias is inherent in everything and everybody, and the sooner a would-be-politician realises that the better. A cursory peek at any school playground will prove that we are all tribal, even at an early age.
Legislation and policy are created by humans with a bias. Police carry out search warrants with a bias. Magistrates preside with it. While there are strict controls around how bias is conducted within institutions, it’s everywhere!
As Echo editor, I have been accused by past councillors of bias. In a perfect world, the lid would be kept on any perceivable bias by everyone, especially the media.
What is key here is fairness, not bias. There is great strength (trust) when the media treats all subjects fairly. As much as any editor may aspire to these ideals, it is not always possible to maintain. After all, we are all emotional beings.
There is a difference between fairness and balanced reporting.
Yet being fair is not providing equal space to opposing arguments. If the story relates to a scientific topic for example, it is assumed that a qualified scientific position would carry more weight than one that is not underpinned by peer review or classical scientific enquiry methods. As most in the media miss this point, it is leading to a less informed public.
As Echo editor, I have been accused on occasion by some councillors of being a bully.
Yet in the context of power, it is the government that will always have the capacity to be the biggest bully. Government creates law and is defended by a large army of bureaucrats.
Playing the victim or complaining of public or media harassment generally won’t receive much traction or public sympathy in an informed community like Byron Shire. Such an approach does poll well for those who are unskilled thinkers however.
It’s self-explanatory that while the media’s power is only words, they can be damaging, especially when done over a long period of time.
Despite that, the power of government is immeasurable. While there is some grey areas, the media are either the cheerleaders or enemies of the state. Being an enemy of government is the natural position to take if its governance is poor, which it almost invariably is.
This section relates to you, as a political actor, being informed about defamation laws with regards to comments made by the media and public against you.
It’s worth thinking about if you are overtly opinionated about contentious issues/and or engage in personal exchanges.
From www.artslaw.com.au (Australia’s independent national community legal centre for the arts):
“Defamation is a communication from one person to at least one other that harms the reputation of an identifiable third person, where the communicator (the publisher) has no legal defence. The law of defamation aims to balance the right of free speech with protecting a person’s reputation against harm”.
As editor, I have been threatened many times with defamation, and touch wood, nothing has stuck. If you are unhappy with what is written, it’s important to immediately address it to the relevant person and explain exactly what you would like to be addressed.
In almost every case, a correction the following week’s paper or online is all that is required to make amends. The placement and wording of that correction within the paper would often reflect the original story.
If the reply from the editor/publisher is still unsatisfactory, then your option is to seek legal advice or make a complaint to the Press Council – www.presscouncil.org.au.
Legal advice costs money, and many lawyers will say you have a case regardless of its merit.
My experience is that defamation can be contested in court if the publisher/journalists refuses to apologise for false or damaging statements which may have caused harm to a personal or professional reputation. A public apology is taken into account if it should proceed before the courts.
Richard Ackland wrote in The Guardian on November 2018: “We have “uniform” defamation acts throughout the country that have been interpreted by the courts in the most punishing ways, at least for media defendants. Defences of honest opinion, the public interest where stories are published in a “reasonable” manner, and even defending the truth, have been made blindingly complicated and largely unworkable by the legislation itself and the courts. Protections for “innocent disseminators” such as internet service providers or social media platforms are uncertain, with problems compounded by drafting anomalies.
Actions in defamation can be brought against articles that remain in online archives years after they were first published, making them almost indefensible because witnesses and even the journalists have long vanished. Multiple actions for separate awards of damages can be launched over the same article if it is published in different newspapers and platforms within the one group.
…Dr Matt Collins QC, one of the country’s leading defamation barristers, the one who acted for Rebel Wilson and for Fairfax in the Joe Hockey case, points out that the law neither adequately protects the fundamental human rights of free speech or of reputations when matters of public interest are exposed. The current legal framework he describes as “Frankenstein’s Monster”.
“If you were starting from scratch, the defamation laws you would draft would bear no relationship at all to those we are saddled with,” he says.
Tips on how to handle the media
As PM, John Howard managed to keep the media at bay by getting up early to make sure he was across the topics of the day and then set his own agenda by releasing statements and policy, which would challenge and change the media’s narrative.
His predecessor, Paul Keating did much the same.
Changing the media’s narrative to suit you or distract is the ultimate goal of any political actor. Most media are easily distracted and led.
As PM, Kevin Rudd once distracted the media by tweeting a selfie of himself with a shaving cut. There are many everyday examples.
Edward Bernays is the father of propaganda, and any book by him or about him can help guide you through how public perception works and how to use it to your advantage.
It might work with some media, but having studied how political actors operate, I usually ignore blatant distractions. Yet I am always happy to be given comment on any current topic, which is perhaps the best line of defence against the media as it can change the narrative. The key is providing relevant new information that informs the community in a positive way.
Byron Shire Council currently
Councillors were elected in 2016 with a strong Greens majority (four, including the mayor). The make up also included two Labor councillors, two independents and a conservative. Since the Greens mayor quit just before COVID-19 hit in 2020, two other Green councillors quit to become independents.
While councillors of 2016–2020 would insist that everything is tickety boo, they have eroded public confidence by having very little political experience and understanding of bureaucracy. The disco dong (now dismantled) and the Butler Street bypass fiasco are just two examples where scrutiny was not adequately applied. There are scores of DA decisions that failed the community. Developers have been the winners at the expense of the community.
The May 2019 preselection of mayor and candidates by the 200-odd Greens members resulted in a rejection of the mayor’s new direction, as well as those councillors who have supported his decisions. Duncan Dey won mayoral and top councillor candidate positions. While sitting Greens councillor Sarah Ndiaye was voted last as member’s choice for mayor, she gained second place for the councillor ticket, following adjustment under the party’s affirmative action policy. Matthew O’Reilly polled second but is placed third (after Sarah) then Kate Coxall, Ian Cohen, Michael Lyon and James Wright. There were four Greens councillors elected for local government at the 2016 election.
Here’s a few ways councillors can instil public trust:
• Regain full control of major decisions with DAs, tenders and legal proceedings.
• Instigate a full independent review of staff operations and ignore their pleas that everything is fine and other reviews are underway. Publish the results.
• Employ an independent forensic accountant to review Council’s budget. Council are required to use only state government approved accountants for audits, and this Council have been using the same one for many, many years. There is nothing stopping Councils from launching an independent audit, however. Publish the results.
• Make transparency an actual cornerstone of your governance instead of a buzz word. Allow the public (under a time limit) to publicly critique and criticise you and staff performance. Toughen up Princess! Require that staff process FOI (freedom of info requests) in a timely manner and make them free.
• Require planning staff to adhere to a charter of community expectations so that poor planning decisions are minimised and staff are held to account.
Hopefully this information has been useful and I wish you luck if you decide to run for public office.
Vanity press basically. Of course politicians take notes from Yes, Prime Minister, if they have no ideas of their own.
I had to skim this piece but the basic politics is obvious, big bad developers and crafty journos.
If the author had done some journalism he might have kept it to ten pars with mostly anglo-saxon words.
And no mention I could find of water, roads and sewerage. The Tweed Shire managed quite all right without a council for years when they were sacked: the taps ran water, the rubbish was picked up, the sewerage worked.
Clearly the idea of council has changed in some way. Modern times.
Still, some good work and quotes.
I don’t like the easy peasy representations of journalists and even politicians. None of us know the future tho some profess to, we are mostly as individuals dealing with history as it happens, not with hinedsight. And not with foresight. Those two qualities would be welcomed but then there is the problem of expectation. For every positive there is also the lack of it, which would be the negative, and vice versa.
I will look at some of the other chapters, with an open mind. Any written work deserves that.
If it goes spiralling into climate change, that’s it.
No. “Laws aimed at maximising profit through exploitation of environment and residential amenity.” In other words if we had the Greens 150 years ago there would be no dams, meaning no cities or even towns, even villages would be doubtful. “Residential amenity.” I would have thought that was everything. Apparently not. The author’s preferred Council would be a council of stone sharpeners.
I would have purchased this book on the basis of the quotes alone, and some insight it appeared.
I cannot speak for all countries but our environmental concerns here have been matched by no end of awareness over 40 years. The awareness campaign goes on not because of our faults but because the campaign has no limits at all on its agenda. It’s not about compromise. It’s about absolute power.
Even ecologists on their trips into the wild have residential amenity, boats or campervans with beds, helicopters, tents at least.
And the reptile media? Elites at the thin strata of the top?
The New Big End of Town agrees entirely. They want a good big slice of the environmental cake and call it what’s good for koalas.
The Echo is just an echo of that progression.
Socialist realism in other words. Call it what it is or don’t call it at all. Communist countries are the least environmentally aware.
You… are confusing me, Robot. Please remove
the elephant & ant away from a well presented
piece on public office.
Thanks Hans, what a valuable resource for any aspiring councillor. Advice -if you are thinking about council, then make sure you go to meetings and read agendas starting now, to truly understand the breadth and complexity of the role. Also make the Local Government Act a priority on your reading list. Best of luck and respect for all who give it a go.
War & Peace re-released by Robot. When
are you running for public office?
A really concise piece of work Hans…,
Thanks for that..
Not a get up for me.. I don’t have the personality for politics.
I say this though & this is why it’s a great piece….know who you are, what you’re about & why you are there because it’s a big ask. it’s a boxing ring… with no privacy & a lot of badly behaved people.
Donald Trump for example has utterly no idea in any detail of the American Constitution really from things I read & watched, especially some of the revelations in that Anonymous document published a few weeks ago in I think it was, the Washington Post.
Thanks.. too long… too many to read at present… very helpful to give a reality check & overall perspective to keen punters..to those whom think it’s works for them.
Too much biffing it out for me. I is a lover.. & funnily enough even though I have written a few on here recently, I really love my privacy.
& …. look… it’s lovely Jan.. hope you are doing ok. We love you.. Thank you for all the work you did as mayor. You held a beautiful space for the area. It was very special.