For all the hand-wringing about the future of journalism and the importance of quality newspapers for our democracy, there’s a very simple solution: if there are less journalists ferreting out secret information for the public, then we should encourage a greater culture of voluntary disclosure, plus regulate or legislate to force the release of much more information about key institutions.
We all know that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” yet even something as basic as expense claims by politicians are not disclosed on a mandatory basis.
I’ve been trying for almost three years to get individual disclosure of expense claims by Manningham City councillors. After failing at every turn, the numbers may finally be there in support of the following motion (see item 14.3 on p634 of the agenda) at an open council meeting tomorrow night:
Notice of motion by Cr Stephen Mayne
Council resolves that:
At the council meeting to be held on August 28, 2012, officers prepare a report for formal endorsement which identifies and summarises the discretionary and identifiable expense claims of all elected Manningham councillors, including those who have resigned, related to the period from December 1 2008 until June 30, 2012.
Information to be disclosed will not be broken down into individual years but the overall expense claims figures will be attached to the names of individual councillors under the following categories:
Conference registration fees:
Petrol, parking and local travel claims:
Telecommunications, phone and internet:
Meals, drinks and entertainment:
Any other discretionary expenses incurred and paid by Council: Officers are to present a draft report no later than Tuesday, August 7, 2012 for initial discussion at a council briefing. Individual councillors, including former councillors, will then be invited to submit a written clarification of up to 300 words (responding and relating only to the report of their own claims) prior to further Council consideration and acceptance in an open debate at the public council meeting on August 28, 2012.
If successful, this may indeed be a useful model for future expense claim disclosure.
While the regular online disclosure by Victorian councils such as Moreland, Hume, Geelong and Melbourne has worked well, the information tends not to get reported because it dribbles out.
Having a one-off disclosure event at the end of a political term will certainly generate some media and community interest going into an election campaign. It will also serve to moderate any future excesses as claimants would know that disclosure was coming.
Given the sensitivity, such information should be prepared by bureaucrats but with a key right of reply for the elected officials. Overall, it is no different in concept to the independent budget updates that Treasury now provide before a federal election.
Because there is no formal opposition at councils and the mainstream media don’t take an interest, the role of local papers becomes increasingly important. The seven reporters I’ve encountered working for News Ltd’s Manningham Leader and Fairfax’s Melbourne Weekly Eastern do a good job but are generally young, over-worked, inexperienced and poorly paid.
Our council has been embroiled in a series of governance and conduct controversies but these publications rarely take a strong stand. They don’t do comment, journalistic opinion or editorials on local issues. Similarly, it is a rare event indeed to see a story generated by an FOI request.
Given that councillor expense claims are subject to FOI laws, if the motion is defeated tomorrow night, one option would be to simply lodge an FOI and self-publish. Councillor as journalist, if you like.
With newspaper journalism in crisis, surely it makes more sense to institutionally make such information readily available in an easy to interpret and accessible format.
Australia has the most concentrated newspaper market in the world with Fairfax and News Ltd enjoying an incredible 86% market share. The top two operators in the US only control about 15% of that market.
Sadly, aggregated newspaper ownership leads to economies of scale, less localism and a one-size-fits-all approach.
That’s certainly the Kim Williams’ vision for News Ltd with his “one city, one newsroom” approach and investment in systems that will put local weeklies and metro dailies under the one editorial, newsroom and management structure.
At the moment, News Ltd’s 34 different local Leader newspapers in Melbourne have about 10 editors carrying a ridiculous workload. Many of the editors have no particular knowledge of a local community and just spend the week shovelling copy.
I was the councillor who strongly argued that we should substantially increase our annual spend on News Ltd’s Manningham Leader by running our regular half-page ad every week, rather than fortnightly.
This was partly in the hope we’d get an increased editorial resource but after the editor and the senior reporter quit over the past 12 months, we’re now down to one junior reporter and a new editor who is too busy to even respond to emails because he’s responsible for titles covering two other municipalities.
While local government is more open than its state or federal equivalents, there are many who argue it needs more scrutiny not less. And with News and Fairfax slashing their efforts to cover councils’ property, maybe the sector should think about seed funding a new web-based journalism venture with a mandate to comprehensively and independently cover the sector.
After all, good journalism is the cheapest form of regulation for a democracy and far better than using lawyers, bureaucrats and investigators to influence behaviours.
*Stephen Mayne is a Manningham City councillor and was not paid for this item