Picture this: you have two jobs. One day you call in absent from one because it clashes with the other. Your employer gives a very unusual response. He doesn’t suggest you leave one job; he doesn’t punish or fire you. He doesn’t even try to implement a plan to prevent another clash. Instead, he mandates that none of his employees can work for your second employer. They can work anywhere else. They can even hold two or three other jobs — but they can’t work where you worked.
Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? But this is what will have happened to a number of NSW MPs if the State Government passes its "Dual Roles" proposal — no politician will be allowed to hold a state and local council seat simultaneously.
Minister for Local Government, Don Page, described it to the Sydney Morning Herald like this:
"The matter of dual roles … became an issue when it was reported that several new state MPs were unable to attend council meetings because of State Parliament commitments, and when a state MP missed a sitting of State Parliament because they were tending to local council matters."
Perhaps the O’Farrell Government considers dual roles a conflict of interest? Apparently not — at least not under the Model Code of Conduct, and they are not proposing to rewrite that.
Maybe it’s a constitutional issue? Nope. It’s true that parliamentarians are forbidden to hold an "office of profit under the Crown", but local councillors are considered accountable to the people who elect them, and not to the executive Government.
The Government stated the proposal addresses concerns from "various groups in the community". To understand who these people might be, let’s take a look at the history of the topic in the media.
Over the past decade dual roles haven’t been a big issue. It pops up every now and again if a councillor misses meetings, or as part of a negative campaign to paint a politician as overburdened.
In 2003 Premier Bob Carr, irritated by a new member missing a sitting of Parliament, publicly asked his MPs to leave their local council posts when they felt the time was right. At that point about a dozen MPs were also councillors, today that number is around 30.
Many of these local councillors were swept into Parliament in last year’s landslide election win for the Coalition. They are still serving as councillors because the local government election term runs from September 2008 to September 2012 (determined by state government). Most will likely not recontest, and many have stated this publicly.
Two months after the election, the Sunday Telegraph published an 850-word article about "MPs who refuse to give up their paid jobs on local councils". It claimed this "loophole" meant "thousands of Sydneysiders are paying twice for double-dipping politicians". It focused on the nearly one-third of the O’Farrell government who held dual roles.
The edition included an incomplete list of double-dippers and an editorial attacking Clover Moore’s "unprecedented grip on power". It overlooked at least seven previous Sydney Lord Mayors who were concurrently MPs.
A week later Clover Moore flew to New York to meet the Mayor and inspect bike lanes, then to Sao Paulo for the C40 climate summit. She missed four days of parliament. That weekend O’Farrell told AAP her holding two seats was a clear conflict of interest, and that she had missed a quarter of the year’s sitting days. The article failed to mention that his government had only sat 16 days thus far, but the line was reprinted in major newspapers nonetheless.
Two weeks later on 12 June 2011 it was reported that O’Farrell had ordered an immediate review of dual roles.
The Sunday and Daily Telegraphs published at least 13 more articles on the topic — all attacking Moore either primarily or entirely. The vehemently anti-Clover Moore position of both newspapers prompted even an opposing Greens councillor to publicly defend her.
In November, the Division of Local Government (a state government body) released a discussion paper on the topic.
The cons include concerns about conflicts of duties and the ability of a single person to perform multiple roles. If an MP is also a councillor, ratepayers may have concerns about how complaints about the council will be handled. On equity, councillors who aren’t MPs may suffer reduced access to parliamentarians relative to their colleagues who are. Finally, the responsibilities of staffers may become blurred.
In favour of dual roles, the discussion paper noted that dual roles are effectively democracy in action and may ensure the best people do the jobs. Dual roles may encourage local advocacy and bring council concerns more directly into the purview of state government as well as increase efficiency. Furthermore, many MPs hold other official positions so banning dual roles involves some inconsistency.
Clover Moore submitted her response and published it online. Moore strongly opposes the ban on dual roles, and indeed called for it to be subject to referendum. "Given the contentious nature of the proposed ban on dual roles, and its damaging impact on democracy and the quality of community representation, any such ban should be subject to endorsement by the people of NSW in a constitutional referendum."
Don Page, who oversaw the publication of the discussion paper, wears a second hat as the Minister for the North Coast, and a third as the Member for Ballina. Interestingly, half of his electorate lies within Byron Shire Council, governed by Mayor Jan Barham, a Green who "moonlights" in the upper house.
So how legitimate is the concern that dual roles are causing MPs to miss sittings in State Parliament? The records of the Legislative Assembly are telling.
Of the 135 politicians in the upper and lower houses, 102 didn’t sit on local councils last year. Their average absenteeism was 2.1 days per year. The 33 "dual role" MPs actually showed up more often, with an average absenteeism of 1.8 days. Whatever the reason for O’Farrell so assiduously pursuing dual role MPs, the claim that they don’t work hard just doesn’t stack up.
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