Recent changes to the Local Government Act require that all Councillors “uphold and represent accurately the policies and decisions of the governing body“. Councillors are also yo refrain from “making negative negative personal reflections” and must be seen to be “supporting council’s official decisions”. This means that once Council has determined a matter, any Councillor who previously argued against any proposed decision must now ‘toe the Council line“, They should not criticise, argue their own position, or attempt to undermine the Council decision. This principle had been argued in favour at Willoughby Council for decades.
The business of making decisions by Council is by way of motions. A motion may come forward from the General Manager or Councilors. These motions are widely advertised. When a motion is being debated, members of the public can address Council and Councillors can argue for or against a motion, or ‘dissent’ by leaving the Council Chamber. A motion is determined by a majority of Councillors. Under the Act, that is basically the end of the matter. The General Manager initiates actions to implement Council’s decisions. How individual Councillors voted on the matter is recorded and publicly published.
When this issue was being considered by the State Government, both the Greens and Labour political parties argued against its adoption.They argued that the changes were designed to silence dissent. Logically, it can be seen that this is not the case, and Councillor can dissent from any proposal, argue their case and vote against any matter if they wish. It is only after Council makes a decision are they required to put their personal view aside and support the Council decision.
Some Councillors, including Willoughby Council, make provision to allow a new motion to be pit on a matter previously determined by Council. This had provided that any new motion could not be put (and argued) for a period of three months after the adoption of a previous motion. Whether such a practice is legal under the new laws is yet to be seen. It might be that a Council could pass a motion along the line outlined above that would allow Councillors to re-argue their case after an agreeable length of time.
Lis Visentin of the Sydney Morning Herald has written an incisive article on this matter -“Dissent ‘gag’ considered a dangerous precedent“.