Cessnock City Council

It is with pleasure I make a statement to clear the good name of councillors of Cessnock City Council. Twelve months ago in this House I referred to problems at the council that had been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and to my concerns at that time that the then general manager was using whistleblower legislation to protect her own job at the expense of the councillors. I make it clear to the House that I am talking about councillors of Liberal, Nationals, Independent and Labor backgrounds; in other words, I am talking about all the councillors, and I am not singling out any particular political party or making a political point. However, part of being a member of Parliament is that we often make character judgements. My judgement of the good councillors of the Cessnock City Council is that they are far and away of good character.

At the time I made my speech, the general manager had found something that concerned her. Instead of addressing it using a formal internal process, given the threat of her job being lost—the councillors had decided that they would move to terminate her employment—she wrote to the Independent Commission Against Corruption asking it to investigate some fairly loose and flimsy allegations of corruption. As a result, the councillors were told that they could not, must not, and would not move to sack her, which gave her approximately 12 months of extra wages and salary from Cessnock City Council. Most importantly, I am making this speech today to make three main points. The first is that when I spoke about this issue last year, some people condemned me and said it was a bit outrageous that I would speak so aggressively about the actions of the general manager.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption report that has been made available tells me that I was pretty much in line—that I was true and accurate. Secondly, Cessnock City Council has not done as well as it could have done over these past 12 to 18 months if we had had proper, astute management at the helm. Thirdly, I want to point out, as I did 12 months ago, that this has cost the ratepayers of Cessnock $2 million. I commend and dip my hat to the councillors for their bravery. At the time seven councillors had to pay their own legal fees, somewhere in the vicinity of $150,000 to $200,000, to clear their names. In an amazing turn of events, at the time the councillors were made an offer: if they signed a declaration that they would not move to sack the general manager they would no longer be deemed corrupt but if they continued to try to sack the general manager they would be deemed corrupt and would need legal advice and representation to defend their position.

Three of the 10 councillors who were originally deemed corrupt because they wanted to sack the general manager, signed a waiver to say that they would no longer try to sack the general manager. All of a sudden, those three were no longer corrupt and they were removed from the investigation process. It cost the community of Cessnock $2 million—from a total budget of $60 million. That means $1 in every $30 paid by ratepayers of Cessnock or realised through grants or other sources of income—$1 in every $30 available to Cessnock City Council—was being spent on legal fees to defend the position of the general manager that the councillors were corrupt, in order to protect her own position.

On top of that, the general manager led the council to an unfortunate incident with the airport manager. The council was also asked to pay damages to Mr Peter Roberts to the value of $500,000 because they had unlawfully and ill-advisedly terminated his contract. The legal costs for that were $200,000. So $2.7 million of Cessnock City Council money—ratepayer money—was lost due to the bad decision-making of the general manager at the time. Fortunately, that general manager has moved on, and Cessnock looks like going onward and upwards from here. I reiterate that this is not about party politics. It is about the good people who stick up their hands as councillors of Cessnock City Council. It is about the work they have done in the past and the work they will do in the future. It is about somebody loosely using the whistleblower Act to protect her own income.