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King Island, Issues with Local Council

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 27 September 2018

Tags: Local Government, King Island

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, I rise to move into a different space from matters that have come to our attention today. It is a story about what is happening on King Island.

Unfortunately, it seems like there is downward spiral happening in local government on King Island. It appears to be threatening not only the freedom of the press and the survival of the King Island newspaper but also affecting the council elections, the free and democratic elections of councillors and of people who are standing. It is a very serious concern that we hope the Minister for Local Government will look into urgently.

We heard from two people on King Island today. Kathleen Hunter, the local journalist has been threatened with a number of complaints to the Press Council. The council has put out illegal electoral advertising under the council letterhead, which is a separate matter.

Kathleen Hunter is a local journo, and a former Victorian journalist for 15 years. At the moment she says feels a bit like Emma Alberici or the New York Times, which is under threat.

The King Island Council has a new general manager. This person has a background in farming and mining. Recently he introduced a head tax on airline passengers but with very little notice. The council put out a press release in July accusing Rex Airlines of corporate bullying and they fabricated a number of claims. The war on Rex that the council undertook ended in a humiliating back down for the council. They were forced to retract their fabricated comments. That ended in a lot of letters to the newspaper about their concerns about their council's behaviour, the general manager's attitude and the approach that council was taking to businesses on the Island.

The King Island newspaper received a Press Council complaint on the basis that two letters to the editor that they had published in the newspaper had been anonymous and did not accurately reflect the views of the wider community. That was the complaint made to the Press Council. As is the practice in newspaper letters to the editor, it is required that people provide their name but they do not need to be published with the name and that is quite normal. The complaint was made anonymously to the Press Council which is interesting when that was the concern they were raising. It is paper's view that the complaint to the Press Council was made by the council.

The Press Council dismissed the complaint and they noted that a failure to respect an author's request to withhold the author's name may constitute a serious breach of privacy. As a result, the council has withdrawn their advertising for the King Island Chronicle.

Like many local government bodies, the councils financially support its paper by advertising in them with a half- page ad. This week on the deadline the editor received the following letter -

Good morning, Kath

Please accept this as notification of our withdrawal from advertising in the King Island Courier. The continued degradation of the organisation, its staff and councillors, all of whom are members of this small island community is unacceptable. As such, support of the publication by way of advertising spend will now cease.

Kind regards Emma Little Culture and Communications Manager

It is hard to read that letter as anything other than an open threat. Given that the allegations were about letters to the editor, not about editorial comment from the Chronicle, it appears to be about silencing people in the community who are voicing concerns about the council's and the general manager's behaviour. Kathleen published that letter in the newspaper.

The council now intends to put out its own newsletter instead of advertising in the local newspaper. They allegedly intend to publish a list of their 'preferred candidates' for the election in that newsletter. It is an effective form of advertising, which the candidates will not need to pay for.

I wanted to speak on behalf of the editor of the Chronicle who is attempting to provide a service to people on King Island. It is always difficult in these small communities. From experience in the Huon Valley with the Huon Valley News the thing we hold so dearly in the Huon Valley is a newspaper that provides any side of the story as long as it does not have defamatory or rude information or material in there.

People publish all spectrums of views. It is the case that if you stand for elected council or if you are in a position of being an employee in a powerful position on a local council, you have to suck it up. You have to listen to the fact that people may vehemently disagree with you and put your own personal feelings aside.

It seems that this is a bad development on King Island. I urge the minister to look into the allegations, particularly whether the councillors had a mail out on council letterhead which seems to indicate a form of electioneering for sitting candidates. That would be in breach of the Electoral Act.