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Local Government – Coronavirus Restrictions


Rosalie Woodruff MP

Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 26 November 2020

Tags: Transparency, COVID-19, Local Government, Democracy

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, during the COVID 19 pandemic we recognised councils have had to make a number of adjustments to the way council meetings are held and there still needs to be hygiene processes in place. We understand there still needs to be some restrictions in Tasmania around how people gather. We are, nonetheless, concerned that local government meetings continue to remain closed to the public in some areas so constituents are not able to raise their issues as effectively as they ought to.

The Minister for Health, Ms Courtney, and the Minister for Heritage, Ms Archer received a letter from Barb Reid, a descendant of Dolly Dalrymple and a board member from the melythina tiakana warrana Aboriginal Corporation. She raised an issue about the Northern Midlands Council and their concern it is still closed to the public. I am speaking here from an adjournment speech that Ms O'Connor made on the matter on the 11 November so this is still recent. She said -

We feel we are not being heard because what has been put before in previous meetings has basically been read and then put aside. It is a sensitive issue and one where there is conflict of interest with the Developer (in this case the Council…).

Ms Reid says -

We want to be heard and be seen face-to-face even if we have to wear a mask - whatever it takes! We have a right to have a say and just perhaps, attending as … descendants of Dolly Dalrymple Johnson … will give more weight to what we want to put to Council

 

I note that many regional councils are open but some remain closed. The latest assessment I have comes from the Examiner last week, that says -

Break O'Day, northern Midlands and Glamorgan Spring Bay councils has still not reopened their meetings to the public.

 

It does not report on the south. I would appreciate a list of councils that are now open to the public for meetings and those that are closed, if any still are.

Mr SHELTON - I will go to that in a moment. It is crucial the local government decision making remains open and transparent during the emergency period. This is why the ministerial notice issued to respond to COVID 19 requires that where councils meet electronically, they make available a record of that meeting on their website and, as far as practical, this recording should be available in real time. Some councils have online facilities for live broadcasting of the meetings, others do not, and we do have a list of which councils open or not, of course. What is a priority and from the Government's perspective, we've put processes in place to allow councils meeting through the pandemic and what we've also done is put processes in place where every institution, business and whatever has to have a COVID-safe plan and make sure that business operates to that plan. What I can't do as minister is authorise any authority or local government area to go against that plan.

However, the number of councils, as you talk about the number and so on, I'll hand over to Mr Healey who, I am sure, will have some more information about that.

Mr HEALEY - Thank you. Currently 19 councils are open to the public and 10 are currently closed. There are 11 councils that are livestreaming their council meetings. There are 14 councils that are recording their meetings and placing them online as soon as practicable, and there are four councils that are currently not recording because they are open.

Dr WOODRUFF - Excuse my interruption. I didn't understand - of the ones that are livestreaming, which ones of them are open and is there a crossover?

Mr HEALEY - I can run through the list of who is open.

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, I don't understand - yes, please, I think that's what's required.

Mr HEALEY - So, Break O'Day - of those that are open at the moment, we have - •

Brighton •

Burnie City Council •

Central Highlands •

Circular Head •

Devonport City Council is open •

Dorset is open •

Flinders •

George Town is open •

Hobart City Council is open, in-person meetings resumed on 23 November •

Kentish is open for the public •

King Island is open with the numbers limited by registration •

Latrobe is open, with recommended registration to help councils social distancing •

Launceston has been open from September with numbers limited •

Meander is open •

Sorell is open •

Southern Midlands is open •

Waratah-Wynyard is open with numbers limited •

West Coast is open, and •

West Tamar is open.

Of those councils that are closed - •

Break O'Day is currently closed and they are audio-recording •

Central Coast is closed but they have a livestream via the council's website and Facebook page •

Clarence City Council is closed with livestreaming and recorded video that's available •

Derwent Valley is closed and they are video recording and conducting council meetings online •

Glamorgan-Spring Bay is closed with livestreaming •

Glenorchy City Council is closed and livestreaming •

Huon Valley is closed with video-recording and council is conducting meetings online •

Kingborough is closed •

Northern Midlands is closed with audio-recording uploaded onto their website as soon as practicable •

Tasman is closed

I think that's it.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you. Minister, there is a concerning number of councils - I'm particularly interested that Kingborough is closed, doesn't livestream, or do audio-recordings. That's correct? Did I hear that right?

Mr HEALEY - No, Kingborough is livestreamed and video-recorded, and they livestream in real time.

Dr WOODRUFF - Okay, yes, it's closed but livestreamed and video-recorded?

Mr HEALEY - That's right.

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, thank you. Minister, can you please explain why these 10 councils are closed? What is the reason for that?

Mr SHELTON - As I indicated earlier, where councils can't maintain the safety of their public and social distancing. The social distancing issue is paramount, of course, safety of our community, and it's important that safety is, as I said, paramount to those people coming in there and making sure that they are safe.

It is important at this point to emphasis that we mustn't underestimate the importance of the continuing to be COVID-safe. While we have been very lucky in Tasmania, this pandemic is not over and we've seen in other states, of course, where they want to open up and return - where we want to open up and return to business as normal but this is not going to be feasible in all circumstances and we have to continue to provide some flexibility of approach with regard to this. It is also important I point out while councils may not all currently have their public galleries open, their responsibility to provide other important mechanisms of direct engagement with their community members, such as opportunity to submit questions for public question time at meetings and so on, remains the same.

They still need to offer those services to their community, although from a COVID-19-safe point of view, if their plan says there are only so many allowed into the chamber, I cannot authorise them to have more people in there to make it unsafe.

 

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, I'm concerned that nearly a third of local councils haven't reopened their meetings to the public. We don't know when the pandemic restrictions will be lifted. Although there's a vaccine on the horizon, it may be a very long time before herd immunity is at a level that's considered safe to lift these restrictions. So, it's not unlikely to imagine it could be years for that to occur.

This seems to be an issue of resourcing, in terms of the capacity at least to livestream. As Local Government minister, why haven't you prioritised resourcing, or required councils to prioritise resourcing, to enable livestreaming at every single council in Tasmania that doesn't have the capacity for public seating in the public gallery?

Mr SHELTON - Thank you for the question. LGAT has offered all councils their expertise as far as livestreaming is concerned. It's an issue we need to work through with those local authorities to make sure they can be open to the public as soon as absolutely possible, from the division's point of view.

Mr LIMKIN - As the minister said earlier, the councils have a responsibility under the COVID-19 workplace framework No. 1, which is a direction under the Director of Public Health, to meet certain Public Health requirements. They have to make a determination under the WorkSafe Act as to whether they are able to do that. Councils then are required to make those individual decisions.

The division works with LGAT to ensure that they are our priorities, but the minister and I do not have any ability under the act to direct councils. That is an individual council decision, but we do have the ability to encourage, which is what we have done since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, there has been a glacial pace of working through this issue. The community is very concerned there is no change on the horizon for some of those councils. Northern Midlands is just one example where a member of the public is very concerned that they cannot properly be heard. We have to speed this up. The director of the Local Government Division said there is no role for government. I do not accept that. There is absolutely the ability for you, as Local Government minister, to provide loans or funding to support councils, who I understand claim that they are not able to afford the livestream equipment to make their meetings fully public, in real time.

You can step in. There can be directions updated. The State Controller's directions can be updated from you about what local governments are required to do to meet the restrictions of the pandemic, and the overarching requirement for transparency, accountability and public participation in meetings.

You can act. Will you investigate a change to the directions, report this to the State Controller as an issue and fast-track public viewing and involvement in their council meetings?

Mr SHELTON - Thank you for the question. First of all, the state Government is assisting local government with some of their funding issues. We have the Local Government Loans Program - $144.3 million has been taken up by -

Dr WOODRUFF - It's closed.

Mr SHELTON - It is a $200 million program, and we still have over $50 million available to local government if they come to the state Government with an issue that needs money. That loans program is still there, and has been taken up by a lot of local government areas. If the funding is an issue for them around that area, we can certainly do that.

Dr WOODRUFF - Why don't you require that they take it up?

CHAIR - Dr Woodruff, you took five minutes to ask the question. The minister has been answering for a minute and you are already interrupting him. Please allow him to answer the question.

Mr SHELTON - What we have done to make sure, as far as the COVID-19 responsibilities go - and we took decisive action early on to allow councils to actually operate in a COVID 19 environment. They have been able to do that. The councils can operate in that environment. As has been indicated, the director and myself do not have the authority to direct local government to go against their COVID-safe plans.

Dr WOODRUFF - You can make a recommendation to the State Controller that this is a matter that needs to be updated. You can do that as minister.

Mr LIMKIN - For clarity, it is a Public Health direction, not a State Controller direction. The Director of Public Health makes these determinations based on the epidemiology advice, I am informed. At this stage I am advised that Dr Veitch is not planning to change that direction, noting that it may change over time.