By Lawrence Gibbons
The first edition of the City Hub came out kicking in 1995. Back at end of the last millennium, an independent politician was Sydney’s Lord Mayor; voters statewide entrusted an ALP government to conduct their affairs nobly and Paul Keating was Prime Minister. Thirteen years ago the locals were restless. A prototype edition of the City Hub ran the page one headline CRANKY WITH FRANKY. Then independent Lord Mayor Frank Sartor was roundly criticised for not being accessible to the very community upon whose backs he had been hoisted into power. The demands of managing one of the world’s leading global cities were so vast that the little Emperor barely had time for the local folk.
On August 21, twenty five thousand copies of the first City Hub were widely distributed from the bohemian burbs of greater Newtown on the city’s left side to the lucrative eastern suburbs property market over on the city’s very right side. The front page pilloried then ALP bosses Keating and Carr for a sleazy backroom real estate deal. Labor gifted what is today known as the Entertainment Quarter to Rupert Murdoch a former Australian media mogul, who constructed an LA style shopping centre and entertainment arcade on crown land.
Back in 1995 I relocated from the vast coastal sprawl of California to what was termed ‘the arse end of the universe,’ by Oz-trailer’s trash spewing PM. I felt right at home here in NSW. It was just like California, only dryer. Way back in the mid 90’s every new company needed a mission statement. Our manifesto (published in full below) started with part of the credo: ‘It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.’ The statement was lifted lock stock and smoking barrel from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the firebrand alternative newsweekly at which I had worked and whose impact on local politics is legendary. In 1993, on the eve of a local government election and despite years of vocal opposition from all sides of politics, the Guardian convinced every candidate then standing to support a new Sunshine policy, which would require them to conduct their business openly and transparently. Despite objections from all sides that an open government policy was impractical to implement and impossible to enforce, the Guardian convincingly argued that without access to background briefings and frank and open policy debate, the media would forever be reduced to reproducing press releases, guarded opinions and political spin.
Last month in the lead up to September’s local government elections here in Sydney, the City Hub asked every leading candidate for Town Hall to publicly support a Sunshine policy, which would bar groups of Councillors from caucusing on policies in private or from holding closed door policy briefings with public servants. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of politicians standing in line to be sworn into power at Town Hall in several weeks time believed that a new Sunshine policy would be impractical to implement and impossible to enforce. Better to conduct the public’s business in private as usual. Here at the City Hub we believe that every public servant, politician and self-described community representative should be ready, willing and able to serve the community openly and transparently by discussing the reasons for their decisions on the public record. Given the way most sides of local politics have dismissed this paper’s call for a Sunshine policy here in Sydney, you would think the locals had never seen the sun before. For a full transcript of all candidates’ comments on a proposed Sunshine policy, visit www.alternativemediagroup.com
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT A PROPOSED SUNSHINE POLICY HERE IN SYDNEY
‘It is illegal for Councillors to caucus on Development Applications, so the accusation that the Lord Mayor undertakes such is totally false! ….. I have passed this false accusation on to the Lord Mayor’s office’.In the interest of openness and transparency in media reporting you should be explaining, or perhaps you need to obtain, a better understanding of how local government actually works in this state of NSW and not make false comparisons with totally different methods of functioning of local government in other countries
Philip Black, Clover Moore Independent Team Ticket
In my support for a sunshine policy, I’ll make the observation that the City of San Francisco has one of the most positive and can do attitudes and our Sydney run “independents” are amongst the most negative, talking down Sydney and letting you know why things can’t be done (usually in a very verbose way). Maybe there is a correlation between a can’t do attitude and private and/or secret meetings.
Edward Mandlala, Liberal candidate
I’m all for open government. I guess we need to close some meetings to protect legal advice or tender info that might disadvantage council & therefore rate payers. Briefings allow frank exchange between councillors and staff and might not be as useful if the media was there – simply because some things wouldn’t be said that I’d like to hear.
Chris Harris, Greens Candidate
When campaigning as Lord Mayoral candidate for City of Sydney in 2004, I announced my support for a ‘sunshine policy’ where no organised meeting of a majority of the Councillors (regardless of party affiliations) can occur without 24 hours public notice and being held open to the public and media. When I announced this policy at a Lord Mayoral candidate’s debate at the Sydney Town Hall, Clover Moore told me on stage that it was a good idea. How things change when we are elected to power and have a majority in our own right as The Clover Moore Party now has. Once elected to Council I argued strenuously to introduce sunshine rules…In Council and the regular Monday ‘briefings’ I argued the same principles. I was very surprised and disappointed to have the Greens Councillor as one of the loudest opponents to my ‘sunshine’ policy for greater transparency. He and other Councillors wanted the closed session so that ‘we can ask dumb questions without looking stupid’.
Shayne Mallard. Liberal Candidate
I am pleased to be able to state that the Independent Councillors have never engaged in binding caucusing. As a member of the Independent Team on Council, I am free to vote independently. My vote is based on my values and on what I believe is best for City communities. I vote after careful consideration of the issues.
Marcelle Hoff, Clover Moore Independent
From time to time Labor Councillors will caucus about particular issues (except those related to Development Applications) prior to a meeting. We believe the community ultimately should know what we stand for and our core values’Caucusing to ensure these commitments are delivered, and to ensure we are reflecting these core values, is important. Additionally, it is simply impractical to invite the public to every phone conversation, or discussion between Councillors, on every issue. We are always happy to justify and detail our reasoning for decisions, and the best way is in response to correspondence from the public on an issue.
Meredith Bergmann, Labor
The Lord Mayor has asked me to convey her answer: ‘Through the work of effective Independent Councillors, the City of Sydney is more responsive, open, accessible and accountable. All decisions are made in public. Our strong local representation promotes involvement by all City communities, not just people with inside access or vested interests’ (We conduct) 73 Community Forums across the City, we adopted an innovative international model that lets you talk with Councillors and staff, and get updates on major Council projects’.(In addition we produce) twenty-four newsletters over the term reported on our decisions and work, with email subscriptions available for updates on DAs, green city living, what’s on and media’ The San Francisco model cannot be directly replicated in Sydney.’
Jeff Lewis, Communications Manager for Lord Mayor Clover Moore