Papers put council operations under the spotlight

Archaic and secretive government operations are the target of a push by the Mercury and the Sunday Tasmanian that has already driven change, with Hobart Council launching an independent audit of its expenses and overhauling its campaign donations policies.

The Mercury's front page on the 12th of April exposing Hobart Council's lack of scrutiny into employee expenses

The Mercury’s front page on the 12th of April exposing Hobart Council’s lack of scrutiny into employee expenses

The Your Right To Know Campaign kicked off in January, driven by Mercury editor Matt Deighton and Sunday Tasmanian editor Stephen Burke. The papers have joined forces to demand openness and transparency across all levels of government, tackling three elements: the electoral act, the frequent secrecy of council meetings, and the handling of local government expenses.

The project comes off the back of the Mercury’s successful campaign to force the Liberal state government to scrap controversial plans to change defamation laws  and a continuing campaign to lift Tasmania’s education standards.

“It’s an ongoing campaign looking at all levels of secrecy – making sure things that should be out in the open are seen by the public,” Mr Deighton told The Newspaper Works.

The council expenses overhaul was the result of hard work by journalists led by state political editor Matt Smith and Jessica Howard, and aided by finance expert Scott Lewis.

“It showed the method of keeping expenses was quite archaic – the council used a self-certification method, in some cases receipts weren’t needed and we had to go through a FOI to get those documents,” Mr Deighton said.

Mercury senior reporter David Killick and state political editor Matt Smith with their FOI haul of council expense documents, which they trolleyed through heavy rain.

Mercury senior reporter David Killick and state political editor Matt Smith with their FOI haul of council expense documents

“Matt and Scott had to take an industrial trolley to pick up all the documents from the council and haul them back in the pouring rain. We had an accountant go through them with a fine-tooth comb.”

Mr Deighton said as a journalist, it wasn’t hard to pick up when the actions of authorities were suspect.

“I have worked in a few different states across Australia and knowing how the system works in other states, you can sniff it a mile off if something appears to be wrong. It shouldn’t be that difficult to access information on how your local government is operating.

“If you see something that’s wrong, it’s not difficult to make decisions about how you cover it.”

Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Bailey supported the papers’ assertions that the council’s methods were outdated and opaque.

“It’s important that any sort of expense money is justified – it’s just good business practice,” the chief executive of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce said.

“Ratepayers expect better than that, and when they ran that story, not only did the Hobart Council jump up but I suspect a lot of other councils around the state jumped as well.

“A whole range of organisations have come unstuck because people used money that wasn’t theirs – you can think of many federal politicians recently.”

Mr Bailey said the campaign was a “terrific example” of the need for strong, skilled journalists.

“The whole situation has come about because journalists have acted on something they had a feeling about. It’s a terrific example of why we need trained journalists – not just someone who can take a good photo and spin a yarn.”

The importance of Tasmania’s regional newspapers was often underestimated, he added.

“We take them for granted too often and it’s only when there are cuts and changes we realised how important they are to us.

“Local newspapers in Tasmania are unbelievably important – not just mirrors of the community, but drivers of change and, many times, drivers of the local community’s confidence.

“The Mercury is particularly important in driving change, not just in Hobart but around the state.”

The campaign also forced Hobart Council to overhaul its policies around financial assistance to developers and disclosure of political donations - as shown on February 11's front page.

The campaign also forced Hobart Council to overhaul its policies around financial assistance to developers and disclosure of political donations – as shown on February 11’s front page.

The campaign has also prompted Hobart Council to suspend its policy on financial assistance for developers and enforce a demand for local government candidates to disclose their campaign donations.

Mr Deighton said rattling the cage of local authorities was part of the papers’ role as watchdogs in the community.

“We champion the community – we’re really proud of Tassie, we love our readers, and we want them to love Tasmania as well,” he said, “But equally, we’re a watchdog. We keep people in positions in power on their toes and as accountable as we can.

Readers demand an open and transparent government and anything less was undemocratic, he said.

“I can look in the mirror and know we’re doing something that’s right and in the interests of our readers.

“We have been putting noses out of joint – but to me that’s a good thing because it means we’re challenging people, and that’s our job.

“There’s an appetite for change…and I think we’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg – this isn’t going away.”

As part the Your Right To Know Campaign, Mr Deighton and Mr Burke also fronted a legislative council inquiry into the Tasmanian Electoral Act in April. They submitted concerns over a number of electoral laws which leave Tasmania lagging behind other states, including a loophole which allows local government candidates to individually receive donations without disclosure, and laws which prevent the publication of advertisements containing a political candidate’s name, photo or likeness without the candidate’s written consent.

In protest against Section 198 of the Act, which forbids political advertisements and breaking news coverage in printed newspapers on election day, the Mercury ran a spread of cute puppy photos to highlight the disadvantage given the freedom of publication by digital media.

“Such laws have no place in a modern world and severely compromise a newspapers’ capacity to provide in-depth election coverage,” Mr Deighton wrote in an editorial. They are currently awaiting recommendations from the legislative committee.

The campaign also continues to fight against Hobart Council’s frequent habit of shutting down council meetings to prevent media or public access.

“The scrutiny of council behind closed doors is something we do week in week out,” Mr Deighton said. “There need to be really good reasons around that.”

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