“I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” So said French philosopher Voltaire, his famous words springing to mind as a result of a ‘code of conduct’ complaint made recently.
The complaint followed a short Facebook post in which I identified which way elected representatives voted on the Hauraki Gulf Forum’s controversial decision to request from government ministers a new co-governed Hauraki Gulf Authority with increased powers and effective mana whenua control.
I also stated there had been no attempt to consult with the public or even any meeting held within Auckland Council to actually discuss this proposal despite its potentially significant repercussions for both the Hauraki Gulf and Regional Parks.
The councillor making the complaint was one of the main proponents advancing these changes, accusing me of having “…knowingly posted misinformation.”
In reality my comments were largely a series of statements of fact, not really open to challenge, the accusations without substance. The complaint should have been nipped in the bud and dismissed without further ado. It wasn’t and instead the accusations ‘investigated’, were even referred to the conduct commissioner, a University of Auckland law professor (with all the consequential costs involved).
Professor Paterson recently released his findings, which were: “… the complaint should be dismissed… this is consistent with the right to freedom of expression… I can see no evidence that Cr Watson has crossed a line and made derogatory or abusive social media comments about other elected members. Elected members are free to publicly name and criticise colleagues for the way they have voted on a contentious proposal… The Code should not be used to silence members who express strongly held opinions on matters of public interest and criticise political opponents in the media (including social media)…I recommend that the investigator dismiss the complaint…”
The last finding is an important one, for at Council this code of conduct process has been used to stifle debate and criticism.
I’ve been threatened with code of conduct proceedings on a number of occasions now. Each occasion followed my speaking out on controversial issues impacting the communities that I represent, the withholding of information from the public and the identification of glaring and documented shortcomings in the council’s own behaviour.
Each time the threat or complaint came from other councillors. Silencing the critic, controlling the public ‘narrative’ and toeing the party line is little more than institutionalised bullying.
Professor Paterson’s findings make it clear there can be no justification for such undemocratic behaviour. Openness and transparency are important if informed and fair decisions are to be made on the community’s behalf.
Voltaire knew this back then, so should others now.