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Team Adelaide's counter-productive exercise in power politics

Opinion

The Adelaide City Council’s dominant faction has made a misjudgement in seeking to limit the ability of its political opponents to speak to the media, argues David Washington.

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In a move that should put an end to any lingering coyness about the nature of Team Adelaide, the dominant faction in the Adelaide City Council has used its numbers to impose what some believe to be an unprecedented attempt to stop elected members from speaking to the media in certain circumstances.

The so-called gag order isn’t the death of free speech or an end to freedom of the press in the city – it’s much pettier than that.

But it is an incremental impingement on the capacity of democratically elected members to talk about their ideas and plans and, for that reason, it should be condemned by anyone interested in transparent and open governance.

The official story from Team Adelaide is that the gag – which prevents elected council members from talking publicly about motions before they are released on the official agenda – will allow for more informed and balanced debate.

While the gag will obviously cover all members, the real story is that some influential Team Adelaide members are extremely annoyed that some non-team members – Anne Moran, Robert Simms, Helen Donovan and Phil Martin – occasionally get forward publicity for their ideas.

The team, ostensibly led by Deputy Lord Mayor Houssam Abiad, appears to be agitated that its initiatives aren’t being given sufficient praise and, instead, the focus has been on the increasingly febrile and conflicted nature of council meetings.

The faction that said its primary purpose was to create a more unified, can-do council has certainly used its numbers to vote through a number of pro-business changes. Its performance may prove to have a positive effect on the city. Time will tell.

Unfortunately, though, the council is clearly manifesting another by-product of factionalism: mistrust.

The emergence of opposing factions, in other words, has hard-baked conflict into the way the council operates.

And things have been getting nasty, as we’ve reported previously.

Far from presenting an image of the Adelaide City Council as a place where things get done with a minimum of fuss, the gag order approved by the council last night sends a signal that the place is anti-democratic and divided.

And to what end? To make it slightly more difficult for adept media operators to convey their message? The cost hardly seems worthwhile, which indicates a degree of over-reach by the council’s power team.

Team Adelaide is mistaken it if believes this latest move will make its life easier.

It should go without saying that elected representatives at any level of government should have the freedom to talk about their ideas, including to advocate for their own positions on any issue before it reaches the chamber for debate.

We’re not talking about confidential items here: we’re talking about policy positions – ideas. Whether those ideas are good, bad or mediocre, exposing them to public debate as early as possible is surely a positive move.

The schemozzle confirms that the existence of Team Adelaide was always a story in the public interest.

When this publication first started covering the faction last year, members first denied its existence or declined to comment. Later, they insisted that, at most, it was simply a group of individual candidates sharing some printing costs for their campaigns – nothing to see here.

Standard practice. Nothing unusual. Jog on.

We didn’t buy it.

For a while, InDaily was the only media outlet that showed any interest in this shy grouping.

Since the November election, the reality has become clearer to everyone.

The team votes as a bloc and, now, is quite obviously seeking to squash its perceived opponents’ influence in the public sphere, which is why the gag order vote split down factional lines.

However, Team Adelaide is mistaken it if believes this latest move will make its life easier.

It is now more likely that non-Team Adelaide members will double their efforts to have their voices heard and there’s a much greater chance that people will listen.

Now, when a member foreshadows a motion, it will have the added frisson of a potential breach of council rules: a motion condemning noise pollution from a nightclub, or a lack of watering in an obscure corner of the park lands, will take on a meaning well beyond its mundane face value.

In addition, Team Adelaide is now likely to attract much more scrutiny for its decisions as a group. Which is as it should be.

After all, Team Adelaide can hardly conceal any more its true nature: a power bloc that rules the state’s most high-profile council with decreasing patience for dissent.

David Washington is the editor of InDaily.

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