Just what is there in Whanganui's water that makes people there act like morons?

I don't think anyone would disagree that Michael Laws has a rather healthy ego, or that he takes his job as mayor of Whanganui exceptionally seriously. This is the guy, after all, who proclaimed his “constitutional responsibility to fight this decision [to officially name his town Whanganui] until there is no fight left in my body.”  Stirring stuff, indeed!

But if you are going to go around laying claim to “constitutional duties” as the mayor of a rather small river hamlet, perhaps it would be a good idea not to seek to trample over such constitutional basics as freedom of the press and informed criticism of those in power?

I refer, of course, to Mayor Laws’ apparent attempt to kneecap what he sees as a overly critical local newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle and its weekly giveaway Midweek, by withdrawing some $100,000 of council advertising from its pages. The Chronicle claims that this move is an effort to punish it for running editorials like this one, or this one, that take issue with Mayor Laws’ leadership style. Instead, he wants to spend the money advertising in a rival publication, the River City Press – a publication that already places his smiling visage right next to its front-page logo in each issue.

While I have no doubt that Mayor Laws will claim that his move is driven by ensuring public funds are spent in the most efficient fashion, there are a couple of reasons to be suspicious of such an explanation. First, his hostile relationship with the Chronicle makes it awfully… convenient that the “most efficient” use of ratepayers money happens to involve taking it away from the paper.

Consider this recent missive from the mayoral desk:

You need to lift your game, Mr Pringle. The Chronicle already has a reputation as a poor provincial newspaper with an unhealthy preoccupation with cat and dog stories. But misrepresenting council policy and practice is a new low even for the Chronicle.

Or his failed Press Council complaint in 2008 when the paper had the temerity not to publish his letter to the editor.  Given this background, don’t claims that this is no more than an accounting decision seem a little dubious?

Or, to put it another way, what would Mayor Laws’ response have been had the previous Labour government announced that all Whanganui’s roading funding was going to be switched to Palmerston North – but that this move had nothing to do with Mayor Laws’ views on Labour’s social policies… goodness no… it was just that “the efficient use of resources” required the decision.

Second, the alternative council advertising strategy apparently involves using ratepayers’ money to increase the circulation area of the River City Press, so as to enable all ratepayers to see the council’s advertisements in this publication. In other words, the council will subsidise one commercial enterprise to enable it to provide a service that already is being provided by another enterprise. At the least, this apparently inefficient use of resources would appear to require some explanation. At worst, it may be downright illegal.

(As an aside, I just haven’t had the time to look into the legal niceties around this particular issue. Graeme Edgler/Dean Knight/anyone else out there got any thoughts on this? That’s what the comments box is for! Update: The comments function seems to be offline at present, but Dean Knight has posted his thoughts here.)

But even if what Mayor Laws wants to do is within the technical bounds of the law, it still has a distinctly fishy odour. Of course local politicians are going to get pissed off with the local rag – there would be something deeply wrong if there wasn't a continual tension between what the elected figures think the ratepayers should read and what the newspaper thinks it should write.

And it's not as if Mayor Laws is without resources of his own in this tussle. There's the small matter of the nationwide soap-box afforded to him by Radio Live for three hours every morning. While for all he may think that the Chronicle is biased against him, a quick perusal of its webpage shows plenty of stories reporting verbatim his repsonses to its coverage.

So perhaps Mayor Laws could lay off the "it's my way or the highway" act and pay heed to Thomas Jefferson's dictum:

No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defence. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law or politics. I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and persecute the latter.

Comments (4)

by Andrew Geddis on March 04, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Dean Knight has accepted my invitation to discuss the legality of this policy here ... everyone should read it.

by Graeme Edgeler on March 04, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

everyone should read it.

Unfortunately, I don't know your email password ... try this link instead. And being on local government, Dean was certainly the person to respond.  He seems to have covered the local government angle admirably well.

The only thing I can immediately think of - and I'm kinda clutching at straws, because I don't really want a Council to be able to do this - is that it might be discrimination. The Council is caught by section 3 of the Bill of Rights and section 19 prohibits discrimination by "the Government" more broadly than the Human Rights Act does. Punishing someone for their views on a political matter (how well the council is doing) could arguably come within ... but this is a bit of a stretch.

by r0b on March 04, 2010
r0b

Andrew the link in your comment doesn't work when clicked, but it does when cut and pasted.

by Andrew Geddis on March 04, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Yes - I know. There is some gremlin in the Pundit site that seems to have it in for me. Everyone follow Graeme's link instead!!!

As for the illegality point ... I did wonder if there might be some BORA point in play. Perhaps the very act of a local authority effectively punishing a newspaper for its speech (if this can be proved, of course!) is in and of itself a breach of freedom of expression - is there any real difference between a council saying "we will fine you $100,000 because we don't like your speech" and it saying "we will remove $100,000 of business from you because we don't like your speech"? But I doubt even Michael Laws would be that transparent about what is happening - it will be dressed up as a "business decision" by council.

The Chronicle's own story seems to suggest the alleged legal problem lies with a decision to subsidise a private commercial enterprise ... again, I'm just not enough of a local government lawyer to know when councils are able to hand over public cash to help a business expand its operations.

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