The secret service: local councils acting as global consultants
from Joanne McCarthy and the Newcastle Herald
HUNTER Councils has morphed from being a local government body acting as the ‘‘Voice of the Hunter’’ to a secretive organisation advising foreign countries about the ‘‘restructure of national government’’.
Alarm bells are ringing after a restructure that turned Hunter Councils Ltd into Strategic Services Australia, a company with the region’s general managers as directors, despite no public debate or referral to member councils, and serious concerns about public accountability.
Local Government Minister Paul Toole has been asked to investigate Hunter Councils after it sought to formalise the transfer of all its commercial businesses to Strategic Services Australia, worth millions of dollars.
The businesses include Regional Procurement, Local Government Training Institute, Hunter Records Storage and Screen Hunter.
In a letter to Mr Toole this week, long-time Hunter Councils critic, Cessnock councillor
James Ryan, said the region’s mayors, who are members of the Hunter Councils board, were unable to inform their councils and the public of a lot of Hunter Councils’ activities because of advice it was commercial in confidence.
“Hunter Councils claims to be a public organisation that operates on behalf of its 11 member councils, but 90 per cent of its operations are in secret, and its mayors are sworn to secrecy,” Cr Ryan said.
In his letter to Mr Toole, Cr Ryan said he was surprised and concerned to be told Hunter Councils had provided consultancy advice to four foreign governments, including the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, and “at least some of this advice related to the restructure of a national government”.
“The content of the advice to these foreign governments, or the fact that it occurred, has not been reported to Cessnock or other member councils,” Cr Ryan said.
In his letter, Cr Ryan alleged Hunter Councils was not complying with its constitution requiring it to have three sub-committees of councillors from each council, reporting of financial accounts to councils, annual general meetings open to every Hunter region councillor, and annual reports to councils.
Cr Ryan told the Newcastle Herald that even the Hunter Councils constitution was marked confidential, a description he challenged.
Hunter Councils chief executive Roger Stephan was overseas and unable to respond to Herald questions.
Hunter Councils chairman and Maitland mayor Peter Blackmore confirmed the organisation was undergoing a restructure “to ensure it maintains compliance with the Department of Fair Trading requirements, given the scope of services in which Hunter Councils is now engaged, and to facilitate its transition to a Joint Organisation as contemplated in the current reform of local government in NSW”.
Councillor Blackmore confirmed all business activities of Hunter Councils would be under the name of Strategic Services Australia, but did not respond to specific questions about reporting and accountability to the public.
Accountability to the councils as the members or owners of the company would remain and be provided for, he said.
He confirmed that Hunter Councils had “participated in the support for Pacific Island nations, providing advice on basic operational activities”, funded through the Commonwealth Local Government Forum.
In its 2003 constitution, Hunter Councils said its mission was “to be recognised as the Voice of the Hunter”.