‘Insensitive and disrespectful’ complaint dismissed

• Complainant Peter Coxhead.    Photo by Jess Davis for ABC RN.

• Complainant Peter Coxhead. Photo by Jess Davis for ABC RN.

By Taylor Clyne
August 28, 2019

A review, conducted by a Magistrate, of a Code of Conduct decision against the Mayor for ‘insensitive and disrespectful’ comments made in the media has resulted in the complaint being dismissed.
On July 21, 2016 Derby resident Peter Coxhead submitted a detailed complaint to the Local Government Panel regarding a series of comments made in an article published in The Examiner on February 29, 2016 about the then ‘tension’ between tourism and forestry in the North-East region.
The article noted that, “one area of Derby which was to be logged that had a clear felling to occur within only 10 metres of one of the mountain bike trails.”
Cr Howard was asked by the newspaper to provide his opinion as Mayor on the topic to which he responded:
“Forestry Tasmania planned to log the coupe well before we planned the trail that goes along-side it,” he said.
“We the Council don’t have any issue whatsoever; we support the decision to clear fell the coupe.”
In another article in The Examiner published on the same day the Mayor said he wasn’t convinced those riding the trails would be deterred by logging in the area, standing behind the statement that they could co-exist.
“When bikes are costing you $5,000 to $10,000 there are not many greenies that are on the dole that can afford one of them… It’s just a fringe group sooking about everything the way they normally do,” he said.
These particular comments were the centre of Mr Coxhead’s complaint as he believed the comments contravened the model code of conduct. Secondly, after emailing Council for an apology from and censure of Mayor Howard, it was not received and lastly he complained that the appellant had never contacted him in relation to the issues regarding logging before the statements in question were made in the media.
In the original determination the complaint was upheld by the panel who said:
“As a spokesperson for the Council he should demonstrate restraint in making comments that can be construed as offensive or hurtful to any member or group in the community.”
However, on appeal, the Magistrate found on July 18, 2019 that, “in the context of political issues, unless the expression of those views by a Councillor is done in a way which manifestly offends the test whereby ‘the High Court recognises healthy working democracies’, the code is not breached.”
Of the findings, Mayor Greg Howard said that he’s always argued that as a citizen of Australia he has the right to make political comments.
“The fact that I’m an elected member should not disadvantage me in that regard.
“The code of conduct in this instance was being used as a weapon to silence me and prevent me from airing my views about the potential impact of forestry on the Derby Bike Trails,” he said.
“This decision now frees up Councillors to make political comments within reason without fear of retribution from minority groups and people who disagree with their views.
“Whilst some people may disagree with the words used I in no way regret having said them and this decision has put the matter to rest,” he concluded.

To view the full report you can download a copy from the Administrative Appeals Division on the Magistrates Court of Tasmania website.