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A chance for transparency

08 Feb 2018

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By Shane Scanlan

With Robert Doyle quitting as lord mayor on February 4, one unanswered question is: why did he wait so long?

Everyone involved expected his resignation weeks ago. Only Mr Doyle, it seems, couldn’t see what was coming.

A host of other unanswered questions remain about the process surrounding this sorry saga, which has been hidden from public view.

In the absence of any precedent, council chief executive Ben Rimmer took it upon himself to hire Ian Freckleton QC to investigate sexual misconduct claims by former councillor Tess Sullivan against Mr Doyle.

Mr Rimmer says this investigation was “independent” and followed “principles of natural justice”. But, so far, there is no evidence of this. Mr Rimmer refuses to even release his inquiry’s terms of reference.

A fundamental principle, which has been ignored in his process, is that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

If the public was involved in the process in some way, would there have been a different result? Probably not. But it would have been a more legitimate outcome.

Sexual harassment is obviously a delicate subject where victims need protection, but other commissions of inquiry and courts manage to strike the right balance between the public’s right to know and privacy.

In a public statement on February 5, Mr Rimmer said: “I cannot control the behaviour of the parties or of the media.”

For someone with an instinct for control and secrecy, this is, no doubt, a source of frustration.

It remains to be seen how much of Dr Freckleton’s investigation is released.

Mr Doyle’s resignation certainly makes Mr Rimmer’s job easier. But the council has been rocked to its core by the scandal.

Apart from the damage to its reputation, the political balance of the council has been turned on its head.

The dominant faction, Team Doyle, turns out to have been a “team” in name only. Even if the former lord mayor had survived, he had already lost the support and confidence of his “team” and, therefore, his majority.

With a fresh election for lord mayor now imminent, the opportunity exists for a more open and democratic council.

As a lord mayor with a majority of votes in hand, Robert Doyle effectively ruled by decree. Decisions and deals were made behind closed doors and council meetings had become almost meaningless.

Councillors say management determines which decisions are taken in secret and it is true that such a culture, with the council being run like a private corporation, starts at the top.

As recently reported by Southbank Local News, Melbourne City Council is making about a third of the number of public decisions that it was making a decade ago.

And, at the same time, it has become the most secret of the state’s municipalities, making 28.85 per cent of decisions behind closed doors in 2015-16.

It also routinely subverts and stymies the spirit of freedom of information laws to the degree that it is pointless asking questions.

With the dismantlement of the dominant faction within the council and new lord mayor on her/his way, the opportunity exists to revolutionise this culture of secrecy.

Mr Rimmer might consider whether an open, transparent local government suits his style of management.

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