Year after year we have witnessed the farce that is called ‘public question’ time in Glen Eira. In the vast majority of cases no ‘answer’ is provided to the questioner. At best they receive a ‘response’. The question remains unanswered.

Residents have every right to expect that when a reasonable and relevant question is asked, council provides a clear and complete answer. Such occurrences are extremely rare.

This raises several fundamental issues of governance and the role of councillors. Given that the often carefully crafted and obtuse responses are delivered in councillors’ names, and signed off by the Mayor, then surely it is incumbent on these nine individuals to stand up and insist that questions are not simply fobbed off, but answered respectfully and truthfully. Only once in living memory has a councillor taken such a stance where he stated that he did not agree with the response.

One must therefore wonder:

  • Who writes the responses? And who finally authorises each response?
  • Do councillors actually get to see the questions before they are read out at the council meeting? If they do see the questions, when do they receive them?
  • Do councillors have any say, or contribute in any manner to the responses? If not, why not?
  • Why do councillors sit in chamber and never proffer any opinion/reaction to the response – even if they strongly disagree with what has been written?
  • How does such councillor silence engender greater ‘community involvement’ and/or faith in open and transparent government, or does this achieve the direct opposite?

Wednesday night’s council meeting provided the perfect example of this farce. We will focus on one question in particular. In this instance, a resident asked the simple and basic question about the budget – what projects had been abandoned, deferred or delayed over the past 2 financial years and what savings had accrued as a result of such delays? Here is the audio of the question and the ‘response’.  Interestingly, the sound quality of this recording is woeful. Given the millions that council has spent on technology, one should expect that public recordings provide decent audio versions.

Apart from the simple fact that this question remained unanswered, referring a resident to the budget and SRP (Strategic Resource) documents only compounds the problem of council’s lack of clear reporting. For anyone to try and make sense of what is proposed takes great effort and at the very least some modicum of accounting knowledge. Even more difficult is to remember what was contained in the previous year’s budget and to reconcile this with what is in the current budget. It should be council’s role to explain and expand on any variations. One example should suffice:  In the 2020/21 SRP we find on page 8 the following sentence: Town Hall Refurbishment – total of $8M ($2M per annum from 2021/22 to 2024/25). In the current SRP (page 12) this has changed to: Town Hall Refurbishment and Essential Safety Measures: $4M from 2021/22 to 2023/24. What does this actually mean? Is this a ‘saving’ of $4M or $2M given the different years stated?

We then have the latest Quarterly Report which does state that the Carnegie Market development has been ‘deferred’ and that both the Bleazby and Stanley Street proposed multi-storey car parks are ‘under review’. Whilst it is true that no specific funding was allocated to these projects in the current budget, and hence no real ‘savings’ per se, council could have highlighted these decisions in both its response to the public question and in its budget papers.

More importantly, given that there are frequent mentions of ‘efficiencies’ in council’s budget papers, a simple table that itemises ‘savings’ in each department would not go astray. Residents might also be interested to know which departments have had their budgets cut and by how much! Until all the information is out there in a simple, straight forward manner, residents will remain confused, befuddled, and ignorant of what is really happening to their money and how it is being spent and/or wasted.

Nor does it help create a climate of transparency when all councillors simply sit there like silent statues and accept the tripe that parades as ‘answers’ to public questions!