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Doubts over legality of city council "gag order"

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Adelaide City Council is set to impose “unprecedented” tougher restrictions on councillors speaking to the media, despite the council’s CEO admitting he is unsure if the proposed measures are legal.

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The restrictions, which form part of the council’s review of its standing orders, include barring councillors from speaking to the media about motions they intend to put forward before the publication of council agendas.

Councillors aligned with the Team Adelaide majority faction – including Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor, Deputy Lord Mayor Houssam Abiad, Alexander Hyde, Arman Abrahimzadeh, Mary Couros, Franz Knoll and Simon Hou – and independent councillor Jessy Khera are in favour of the restrictions.

However, the council’s CEO Mark Goldstone told last night’s committee meeting he was unsure if the restrictions could be imposed, as the council was yet to seek legal advice.

Goldstone said the wording of the restriction came from elected members, and was not a recommendation of the council’s administration.

“Either way that the motion is accepted, whether it’s amended or otherwise, the administration will make the commitment that we will be taking legal advice to make sure that you make a lawful decision as a council,” he said.

Councillor Anne Moran attempted to defer the matter from going forward until the council received legal opinion and sought advice from the Press Council.

“If somebody wanted not to be able to talk to the media you’d have to put the whole agenda in confidence,” Moran said.

“If I’ve got a motion on notice I send it to my colleagues and I send it to the media… that is my freedom of speech, that is my right as a free individual to discuss it with anyone I wish.

“To ban me from doing that I think would be illegal.”

Goldstone said the proposed restrictions would not force councillors to keep their motions confidential.

“It’s not requiring to keep it confidential because it’s not a confidential item, it’s just prior to the publication (of the agenda),” he said.

But Moran rejected Goldstone’s explanation, saying she often spoke to the media about motions she was intending to raise in the council chamber as a means of “forward advertising”.

“I have written a motion, I have lodged it, you’ve accepted it… and you’re telling me that you’re infringing on my rights to share that with whoever I wish?,” she said.

“This is a really serious thing.

“It is a gag motion.”

Fellow non-Team Adelaide councillors Phil Martin, Rob Simms and Helen Donovan supported Moran, arguing the restrictions could impinge on councillors’ freedom of speech.

“I spent 35 years working as a journalist… I have fought suppression orders, embargoes and bans on publication of all sorts,” Martin said.

“I know what a gag looks like – this is a gag.”

Councillor Alexander Hyde said he was contemplating voting against the restrictions, until he saw a story published yesterday by InDaily, which quoted Martin, Simms, Verschoor and Abiad speaking on the matter.

“That is very, very ironic,” he said.

“It summed up the issue that we’ve been grappling with a little bit, which is not so much free speech as it is this megaphone diplomacy where we just try and shout down everyone before we even have a chance to consider alternative points of view or the advice of the administration.”

Moran’s attempt to defer the matter was knocked back by the council.

A spokesperson from the Local Government Association said he was unaware of any other council in South Australia that had imposed similar restrictions on councillors speaking to the media.

Flinders University political scientist Haydon Manning said the proposed media restrictions were unprecedented in Australia, describing what the Adelaide City Council was recommending as “puzzling” and akin to a “gag order”.

“I’ve never heard of such an effort to really put a gag on debate and conversation,” he told InDaily.

“Often it’s a case of elected members carrying on a conversation they’re having with the communities that elect them through the media.

“Often you’ll see politicians raising issues through the media and it’s like flying a kite to gauge opinion.

“What this does is it really rules out that dimension that is quite customary in politics.”

But Verschoor told last night’s meeting the proposal would not gag councillors.

“If you lodge something on Wednesday, we’re talking about an agenda that comes out on a Friday,” she said.

“There is between the agenda going out and the council meeting five days… for the media to pick up and speak to any members and for members to say what they want.”

InDaily contacted the journalists’ union – the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance – for comment.

The council will formally vote on the matter at a meting next Tuesday.

A recommendation to change the role of the Deputy Lord Mayor to give him or her default chair responsibility of all core committees in the council is also expected to pass with the support of the Team Adelaide majority faction.

Moran argued last night that the recommended change was symptomatic of what she described as Team Adelaide’s “power vortex” on council, as the faction’s alleged leader – Houssam Abiad – is the current Deputy Lord Mayor.

But members of Team Adelaide argued the Deputy Lord Mayor position rotated through council, giving other councillors a chance to chair committee meetings.

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