TASMANIA’S longest-serving Mayor, Brighton’s Tony Foster, says local government needs to be wary of external interests setting the agenda for council reform.
Cr Foster, who has served as Brighton’s Mayor since 1993 after being first elected to council in 1985, was again re-elected as Mayor and Councillor at the October elections. He said local government should be careful to set its own agenda and not have issues forced on it by the media or vested interests.
“While Brighton Council has remained remarkably stable, with all Councillors re-elected, there has been significant change around the State,” Cr Foster said.
“There are 14 newly elected Mayors and many more new Aldermen and councillors and they need to recognise the extra scrutiny now placed on local government representatives.
“For example, there have been dramatic changes in the local media over my 30 years on council.
“Journalists are now generally younger and less experienced. They don’t have the historical knowledge of many local government issues, nor the rapport, relationships and loyalty that is built up over the years. But many of them are interested in community issues and what is happening in local areas and they often have angles or agendas to pursue.”
Cr Foster said this could present dangers for inexperienced councillors.
“We certainly should not allow the media, or any other interests except those of local government to set the agenda for local government issues, and we should not rush into commenting simply because the media wants us to.
“I’ve also found that the old rules and conventions of ‘off-the-record’ and providing background information to journalists don’t seem to apply today.
“Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing as it leads to more openness and transparency, but local government representatives need to understand this when they talk to the media and appreciate that their comments could be and most likely will be quoted.
“The reality is that the immediacy of the media and the 24-hour news cycle means that journalists, be they print or electronic, simply want the story and publish it or get it to air as soon as possible.
“And with social mediums such as Twitter, information provided to a journalist at 9 am, can be public knowledge a few minutes later.
“This means that whatever you say to a journalists, you must be prepared for that information to be made public in your name.”
Cr Foster said his advice was particularly relevant for Mayors who are the primary spokespeople for councils as defined under the Local Government Act.
“I am certainly not being critical of the media, but just pointing out today’s reality for those who are new to local government and do not have the benefit of my years of experience,” he said.
“Issues such as local government reform, council efficiency and structures, and the relationship between the various tiers of government are in vogue, but we should not be rushed into dealing with them on someone else’s timetable and without consultation between councils and with our ratepayers.
“Local government is best able to determine the future of local government in Tasmania and we need to carefully consider how we can best serve the ratepayers and communities we represent.
“The media might believe that comments on local government reform are newsworthy and journalists might be encouraged by vested interests to pursue the story.
“However, at the end of the day, the best outcome for all will be achieved if local government seriously examines and determines the best local government structure for Tasmania.
“We are closest to our communities and are in the best position to make these important decisions that will undoubtedly impact on our local communities,” Cr Foster said.