Freedom of expression important for council

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
Dunedin councillors are this weekend preparing to make arguments about where money should or should not be spent.

Should a theatre network get $100,000 to help it work out what might be needed to upgrade three buildings in the city?

How much more funding should Tūhura Otago Museum get?

Should the council get cracking on more Three Waters work?

Such debates can often be interesting, sometimes lively and, now and then, the line of what is considered acceptable is crossed.

Deliberations on the council’s 2023-24 draft annual plan start on Monday and it is to be hoped councillors feel able to offer their views within the normal confines of debate.

There was an indication this week the council’s appetite for robust discussion may not be what it once was.

The term "car-cancelling" was frowned upon.

It was used by Cr Lee Vandervis and re-used by Cr Carmen Houlahan, points of order were raised by Cr Christine Garey, and infrastructure services committee chairman Cr Jim O’Malley seemed to eventually rule it should be avoided.

If a precedent has been set, it is a regrettable one.

Debate should be allowed to flow relatively freely. The rule of thumb is personal attacks are out, and so are comments that are obviously offensive, but arguments can be made in passionate fashion, if they are relevant.

It is worth going into some detail about what happened at the committee meeting.

The subject at hand was an update on the Shaping Future Dunedin Transport package.

Cr Lee Vandervis
Cr Lee Vandervis
For context, the package is aimed at reducing disruption to the transport network expected to result from construction of the city’s new hospital.

Measures range from providing bike hubs to improving the viability of a harbour route as an alternative to highways in the central city.

Cr Vandervis gave a spirited account of why he had opposed all of it.

He crossed the line at the end of his speech, referring to the "Shagging Future Dunedin Transport" package.

As Cr Vandervis was right on the end of his five minutes, Cr O’Malley was initially minded to call this the end of his speech and allow people to respond in their speeches.

Cr Garey reminded him a point of order had been called and he needed to rule on it and so he did.

"It was designed to be insulting and inflammatory, and we’ve got to keep away from that edge," Cr O’Malley said.

"We’ve got to maintain the standards inside this room."

Fair enough.

What was more interesting was what happened a little earlier and a little later.

"Essentially, we had a car-cancelling council that reduced parking and made things more difficult for motorists," Cr Vandervis said.

Cr Jim O'Malley
Cr Jim O'Malley
Cr Garey found the comment "very offensive" and also cited misrepresentation as grounds for her point of order.

And, to be fair, the way she later represented the package in her speech — "it’s bikes and cars and public transport" — was a more accurate characterisation.

Before Cr O’Malley could make a ruling, Cr Vandervis withdrew his comment.

"I’m not interested in offending anyone here,"Cr Vandervis said, perhaps a little wryly.

The theme was taken up by Cr Houlahan.

"I disagree with Cr Garey, because I do think a lot of this is around car-cancelling. And it’s not a negative thing. I think it’s a positive in the way that ... "

She was interrupted by a point of order from Cr Garey, again citing misrepresentation.

Addressing Cr Houlahan, Cr O’Malley said: "Can I ask the councillor to stay away from inflammatory statements like ‘car-cancelling’, because that implies cancel culture?"

He signalled he would uphold the point of order, "effectively", and asked Cr Houlahan to adjust her framing of the matter.

Cr Houlahan said she was trying to say the package looked at new ways of doing things, to try to reduce cars on the road.

"The words you don’t want me to say is what would eventually happen."

Cr O’Malley went on to say a policy of car-cancel culture would not work anyway and what was really being driven at was a balanced transport programme.

Cr Christine Garey
Cr Christine Garey
Such points were worthwhile, but not all the points of order and associated rulings seemed useful.

Also, what if the boot was on the other foot? If referencing cancel culture is not allowed, then why should saying something slightly emotive about climate change be permitted?

Indeed, when the council declared a climate emergency in 2019, Cr O’Malley said failure to act would be akin to people rushing to the beach to gather fish when a tsunami threatened.

"We are looking at metres and metres of sea-level rise. If we don’t act now ... it will roll over us."

Now, this might be considered slightly inflammatory and so, by the standards established at the infrastructure services committee, such commentary is vulnerable to having a point of order called on it.

We can at least be grateful Cr Garey’s points of order about "car-cancelling" relied more on misrepresentation than they did on offensive language.

The council will have a workshop next month about reviewing standing orders.

"Expressing a difference of opinion or contradicting a statement by a previous speaker does not constitute a point of order," the existing document states.

This is an effort to be clear debate is allowed, within reason.

Judging from this week’s episode, the parts of the document about freedom of expression may need to be highlighted, or bolstered.