It’s always healthy to see the normally conservative Murdoch press take on a dominant right-wing politician, so this page-3 hit on Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle in the Sunday Herald Sun was an interesting test of strength.
The Lord Mayor was leading a business mission to Asia at the time of the credit card expose and didn’t return to Australia until five days later.
While the cat was away, the two often conflictual City of Melbourne Labor councillors decided to play, so we finished up with this notice of motion from Councillor Richard Foster last night proposing to strip the lord mayor of his credit card pending a management investigation that would report back in 6 weeks.
Racking up $28,000 of private expenses on the council credit card was not a good look and arguably didn’t comply with council’s existing councillor expenses guidelines, which say the following on page 14:
“The Lord Mayor shall be issued with a corporate purchasing card to assist with expenses incurred while conducting Council business. A monthly account will be provided to assist with reconciliation.”
No one should argue with the optics, but every month for this three-and-a-half-year period until June last year there was a reconciliation, as required, and the lord mayor wrote a personal cheque to reach the appropriate net figure.
The $28,000 also would have been lower if the lord mayor and council officers hadn’t been conservative on the question of when they both agreed the spend was 100% council-related and not reimbursable. Some items were grey.
Be that as it may, the private spend was still way too high, looked bad and needed to be addressed, particularly spending such as the $375 birth notice in the Herald Sun when son Henry arrived in 2014.
In front of a full court press at Town Hall last night, we ended up voting down Foster’s motion 9-2 and then unanimously voted for the following alternative motion that I put up:
That the Future Melbourne Committee1. Notes the Lord Mayor’s statement that private expenditure initially incurred on his council-issued credit card has been fully repaid on a monthly basis and notes that he is committed to fully comply with council’s expenses policy.2. Requests management to provide additional disclosure of Lord Mayor Robert Doyle’s expenses so that his online quarterly expenses disclosures from January 2016 onwards include specifics about any private expenditure initially incurred on the council-issued credit card or any council expenditure initially incurred on the Lord Mayor’s private credit card.
The audio of the debate was quite lively, as you can hear over the final 15 minutes of last night’s meeting.
The Herald Sun and The Age both gave it a solid run online and the Herald Sun’s Monique Hore did well to convert a 7pm story last night into a page-2 lead in print today.
3AW ran the story from 6am on its news this morning and the lord mayor was grilled about it for almost 10 minutes during his regular spot with morning host Neil Mitchell after the 9am news.
In the end, we got a good transparency dividend. The approach to the original FOI request was “give them everything” and the solution was “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.
There was potentially a case for pulling the lord mayor’s credit card completely -- as occurred in 2006 with then-mayor John So, after another Herald Sun splash.
However, a look at the data showed that something the Sunday Herald Sun portrayed as a reimbursement trend running at $666 a month for the 42 months until June 30, 2015, was actually just $45 a month over the past 20 months. In other words, the practice that the two Labor councillors were jumping up and down about -- reimbursements of private credit card spending -- had actually undergone a 15-fold drop since June 2014.
Never waste a good crisis, as they say, and City of Melbourne, which already has Australian best practice with quarterly online expenses disclosure, will now deliver even more granularity on the lord mayor’s practices going forward.
Our chastened lord mayor has lost some skin, and just watch his spending practices continue to improve under the full glare of transparency and some media attention.
Council officers said they were comfortable with the situation last night so with a unanimous resolution after a nine-day debate, council can now hopefully get on with governing the city and grappling with some of the big issues, such as spiralling homelessness, the $250-million redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Market, rate-capping and the upcoming enterprise agreement, which is due to commence on July 1.
With an election coming up, the publicity around council’s credit card policies could open the opportunity to leverage out some more governance and transparency reforms.
For instance, Foster has prevailed upon councillors to support his multiple international trips, some of which, particularly this $12,000 Copenhagen visit in 2014, appeared to deliver little value back to council.
While it is great that we approve all international trips in open council meeting and demand public reports afterwards, shouldn’t management also be required to express an opinion as to whether the trip is worthwhile, value for money and aligned with council’s policy goals?
Another transparency reform, yet to be delivered, is some disclosure on the allocation of free tickets to councillors for various events around town.
Being an elected councillor in Victoria is consigning oneself to the PPPP club -- poorly paid, part-time politicians -- but there are some upsides such as a dedicated car park in the centre of town, an office, a dedicated member of staff and plenty of free tickets to events.
We’re now fully disclosing all of this, except for the free tickets. Why not? The same should probably apply to journalists and corporate executives who also receive lots of free tickets with little disclosure.
*Cr Stephen Mayne is chair of the Finance and Governance committee at City of Melbourne and was not paid for this item.