Brisbane City Council’s Labor opposition has raised concerns about the censorship of elected representatives’ views during a meeting of the local government’s ethics committee that resulted in a Greens councillor being reprimanded for criticism of the police.
The meeting was called on Tuesday for a case involving Greens Gabba councillor Jonathan Sri’s online comments last year describing Australian police as “racist and violent” when sharing a video of a NSW police officer’s alleged assault of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy last year.
NSW police placed the officer on restricted duties in June 2020 after footage of the arrest surfaced and charged him with assault occasioning actual bodily harm and common assault on Tuesday morning.
After the incident last year, Cr Sri shared the footage with an extended caption that was later edited to describe Australian police who stand by and do nothing to stop that kind of behaviour as being “complicit in racist violence” instead.
Two complaints were made to the Office of the Independent Assessor, responsible for Queensland council conduct complaints, before the Councillor Conduct Review Tribunal referred its findings of a breach of standards back to the committee.
Under the elements of the code found by the committee to have been breached by Cr Sri, councillors must treat people in a “respectful and non-discriminatory way”, not hurt the reputation of the council and clearly state if they were speaking on behalf of the council or sharing personal views.
Labor deputy leader Kara Cook, the party’s senior councillor on the committee, said while everyone may not agree with Cr Sri’s view this should not mean he could not share it, particularly as the elected representative of his community.
“He should be able to express his views,” Cr Cook said. “If we start effectively censoring the views of elected representatives I think that is dangerous territory for this committee to start going into.”
But she said the basis for her objection was that information provided did not allow them to make a finding of inappropriate conduct.
The majority of three LNP committee members, including chair Adam Allan, along with Labor councillor Peter Cumming ultimately voted to declare the conduct inappropriate and reprimand Cr Sri.
Cr Allan said it was “beyond dispute” Cr Sri was a representative of the council and while he may have been making the comment in a personal capacity this was not clear in the statement.
The tribunal found the comments were not reasonable, just, or respectful to people employed as police officers who carry out their duties without racism or violence.
It considered the findings would “have a tendency” to limit Cr Sri’s freedom of expression but suggested the limitation imposed was reasonable and justified to uphold minimum standards for public statements by councillors.
As part of the initial independent assessor process, Cr Sri said it was clear that his Facebook page did not speak on behalf of the council.
In a statement, as he was not allowed to address the committee process, Cr Sri said public officials had a right and responsibility to speak out about racist systems and cultural norms and his original comments had been about the police institution as a whole.
“This is yet another example of hypocritical politicians claiming to care about free speech while censoring and disciplining anyone who dares to say something that they disagree with,” he said.
Cr Sri was fined $2000 in April last year by an earlier version of the conduct process for separate but similar comments labelling the police “violent and racist”.
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