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Improving transparency with video streaming of council meetings

Since becoming a councillor in March 2016, I have advocated consistently for greater transparency and accountability, including calling for video recordings of Brisbane City Council meetings to be published online.

Throughout the first two years of my time as councillor, the Liberals repeatedly rejected my calls, but finally, on 20 November this year, I brought a notified motion to the chamber on this issue, and after extended debate, it eventually passed. The one downside was that the Liberals (who have a strong majority on BCC) did not support filming of council committee meetings, so although meetings of full council will soon be streamed online, the meetings of the various committees (i.e. Public Transport, Infrastructure, Lifestyle and Community Services etc) will not.

I'm hopeful that video streaming of meetings will give residents a greater understanding of the inner workings of council, and will also highlight the fact that the full meetings of council are essentially rubber-stamping exercises, while the big decisions affecting the future of our city continue to be made behind closed doors by the Lord Mayor's inner circle.

Below you can read the text of my opening remarks in the debate about video recording. I will continue to push for video recording of council committee meetings, and for a range of other reforms to improve transparency and accountability within local government.

I move that:
1. A video and audio recording will be made of each full meeting of Brisbane City Council and made available to the general public, free of charge, via the Brisbane City Council website.
2. A video and audio recording will be made of each meeting of each of Brisbane City Council’s committees, and made available to the general public, free of charge, via the Brisbane City Council website.

Transparency is a crucial element of any properly functioning representative democracy. If voters don’t know what decisions their elected representatives are making, or how we conduct ourselves in policy debates and discussions, voters are unable to make an informed decision about who should represent them.

Without sufficient transparency, it’s almost impossible to hold elected representatives to account for their words and actions.

There’s a good reason that we publish a full transcript of each meeting of Brisbane City Council. We want the people of Brisbane to know what we are saying – what issues we are choosing to spend our time debating, and what issues we are ignoring. We want residents to know the factors and values that influence how we vote on the floor of council.

Another crucial element of our democracy is civic engagement – public participation. Residents need to be in active dialogue with their representatives – not just once every four years at election time, but on a regular basis, letting their councillors know their needs and views, and providing feedback to us regarding how we spend our time and energy.

It’s very difficult to engage with a long written transcript of a meeting. The official transcript of our last meeting on 13 November is 95 pages long. But the written transcript doesn’t paint a full picture of what’s happening in the chambers.

It doesn’t capture facial expressions or tone of voice. It doesn’t show whether other councillors are listening attentively, or falling asleep, or even reading a book for leisure, as a certain chair of city planning once did during a meeting. The transcript doesn’t show when councillors leave and enter the chamber.

Right now, one councillor can stand up and claim that another councillor isn’t present in the room, and there isn’t even an official record within the minutes to validate or crosscheck that statement. I think a lot of residents would be surprised to see how often and for how long the Lord Mayor is absent from these debates.

Residents would also be very surprised to see the way some councillors conduct themselves in this chamber, calling out, interrupting, making rude remarks, shouting abuse. I believe that if people saw the way some of their reps behaved during council debates, they’d probably think twice about voting for them. I would like to think that the added scrutiny of video recordings would discourage some councillors in this place from acting like arses towards one another. But maybe that’s a little naïve.

In an age of social media and the proliferation of video content, video recordings of speeches and debates are a much-needed tool in engaging residents and highlighting issues of public concern. The LNP councillors produce videos about all sorts of things. So why don’t they allow publication of videos of council debates?

Here in Brisbane in 2018, residents continually express to me their concerns that Brisbane City Council is not sufficiently transparent or accountable – that big decisions are being made behind closed doors without proper public engagement or scrutiny.

Residents are frustrated. Often they don’t hear about important decisions until long after they’re made, and they rarely understand the reasoning behind those decisions. Most Brisbanites don’t even know the name of their city councillor, let alone what they’re saying and doing here in council meetings.

The problem is even worse within the meetings of the various council committees. Although these committees are theoretically open to the public, a full transcript of the discussions in these meetings is not made available online, and the various remarks made by councillors during general business are not even recorded unless a local journalist happens to be in that particular committee meeting and decides to write a story about it.

Full council meetings and committee meetings currently take place during the day on Tuesdays. The vast majority of residents who work or study on weekdays simply don’t have an opportunity to watch their councillors in action in these meetings. Residents are unable to observe how effectively their representatives are advocating and how we engage with other councillors.

And as mentioned earlier, the written transcripts are a poor and incomplete record of what really goes on in these meetings. The written transcript doesn’t always tell the full story.

Publishing video recordings of council meetings online would cost very little. We already have microphones and audio recording systems set up in the main council chamber. Any objections to this proposal based on the potential cost are intellectually dishonest. To claim that council can’t afford to record meetings would be a blatant lie.

The only other argument the LNP have offered against publishing video recordings is that an individual councillor might say something defamatory in a council meeting, and publishing a video including that defamatory statement online might expose BCC to legal liability. This is a very weak excuse considering that council meetings themselves are already publicly accessible.

Under Australian law, one of the well-established defences to a defamation action is that the content being published is a fair report of proceedings of public concern. The content of a public council meeting is quite clearly a matter of public concern. As such, even if BCC did publish a video of a council meeting where a councillor said something defamatory, BCC would be protected from any legal responsibility. There are a number of other public interest defences which would also prevent legal liability attaching to council.

However, if there are indeed genuine legal concerns – which I doubt – a simple solution would be to remove any footage of defamatory statements from the video record before it’s made available online. I understand this is the response council already uses for the written transcripts of the full council meetings.

Ultimately, the public interest in knowing what goes in council meetings overrides any concern about the republication of defamatory statements.

It’s important to note that other councils around Queensland have already moved towards publishing video records of council meetings.

Gold Coast City Council livestreams video and audio of all full council meetings, and leaves these videos freely available online to the general public. Gold Coast has been livestreaming council meetings since at least January 2012, and you can go onto their council website and watch all of these old meetings. In this respect, Gold Coast City Council is far more transparent than Brisbane City Council.

Redland City Council also records and livestreams council meetings. It’s interesting to compare the two councils and see that the Redlands councillors start their meeting with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners, while Gold Coast seems to start with a prayer and a somewhat cringeworthy rendition of the national anthem. Each to their own I guess.

Ipswich City Council also livestreams its meetings, and you can find the videos of all past meetings on its Youtube channel. Even after the councillors were all sacked, the interim management committee has continued to livestream and publish videos of each of its council meetings.

Even smaller councils like Fraser Coast Regional Council, which covers a population of roughly 100 000 residents, livestreams and publishes videos of council meetings. If Fraser Coast can do it, why can’t Brisbane?

Across the border, it was announced just last week that webcasting of council meetings is becoming a mandatory requirement for all local councils in New South Wales. Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton told media on Friday, 16 November, that "If it's good enough for federal and state MPs to go live to the nation, then there is no reason why local councillors should be exempt.”

We’re now almost 20 years into the 21st century. This change is long overdue, and Brisbane City Council urgently needs to get with the times. For a city that claims to be embracing digital technology and innovation, it’s pretty embarrassing that they’re apparently still so afraid of video.

What’s become clear to me in my two and half years as a councillor is that this LNP administration has an authoritarian instinct to want to tightly control the narrative of council meetings and silence and marginalise dissenting voices. They might occasionally allow supportive journalists to film short clips, but they do not allow any filming that they don’t have control of. In the past, I have sought permission from the chair to film specific speeches and debates during council, and have had these requests denied.

The LNP doesn’t publish videos of meetings, because they know it would make them look bad. They know it would make it easier for residents to understand what goes on in this place, and that that would lose them votes.

Looking beyond the lame and self-serving excuses, the LNP are resisting transparency and public scrutiny because it would be politically damaging. They don’t want residents to know what happens in this chamber. They don’t want videos of the puerile debates and partisan attacks they engage in to circulate online.

And yet, in a grand act of hypocrisy, they are spending millions of dollars of ratepayer money installing security cameras throughout this city. They want every public square and building under surveillance, and yet they would not dare subject themselves to the same scrutiny. They are happy to film residents all over Brisbane, but they don’t want residents to see what they’re up to. This double-standard lays bare the LNP’s motivations. They want cameras all over the city, except in council meetings.

They want to collect six figure salaries, and make big decisions affecting the future of millions of Brisbane residents. Yet they don’t want the public to see and hear their meetings.

So ultimately, the question is: what have they got to hide?

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