PRESSURE is building for Mornington Peninsula Shire to make public a register of “gifts” to councillors and council officers.
Anything listed in the register under the terms of the shire’s Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy is audited annually by the Victorian Auditor General’s Office.
Audit results are passed on to council’s risk and audit committee, but not made public. Councillors are now openly questioning the policy and its statement that: “Gifts, benefits and hospitality received must not create a real or perceived sense of obligation that may lead to a perception of preference or conflict.”
The policy also states: “Councillors and council staff are to ensure that attendance at private functions does not have potential implications for council’s reputation or image or may cause an actual or perceived conflict of interest.”
The gifts register at Frankston Council is open to public scrutiny and includes gifts ranging from $5 to $700, including council staff accepting hospitality at AFL and VFL games, tickets to peninsula events such as the Lights by DreamWorks experience featuring well-known children’s characters including Shrek, Mornington Racing Club horse racing events and tickets to Frankston Arts Centre productions.
Calls for the shire’s gifts register to be made public have gained momentum since revelations that shire CEO Carl Cowie was a guests aboard the cruise ship Seabourn Odyssey hired by prominent businessman and Portsea property owner, Lindsay Fox (“Shire boss on Fox ‘party’ cruise”, The News 11/12/17).
The seven-day Mediterranean “procreation cruise” in July 2016, from Athens to Venice, appropriately timed to coincide with Mr Fox’s 8oth birthday in April 2017. Mr Cowie has stated that there was no need for him to add his presence on the cruise to the gifts register as it was made during approved leave at no cost to council.
Calls for the register to be made public also come in the lead up to the expiry of Mr Cowie’s current employment contract with the shire.
Councillors must give Mr Cowie six months’ notice if they decide to advertise – rather than automatically renew – the job that comes with a salary package of about $400,000.
It is understood councillors will discuss the gifts register at a closed briefing before the first public council meeting of the year on Tuesday 30 January.
The mayor Cr Bryan Payne – who was not a councillor at the time of Mr Fox’s “conception cruise” – has told The News that Mr Cowie’s trip “could look like a conflict of interest if it didn’t have council approve”.
Former mayor Cr Bev Colomb – who was a councillor at the time of the cruise – said she had not been “part of an approval process”. She believed the gifts register “needs to be accessible to the public”.
Cr David Gill has this week offered his opinion, saying that the shire “should have a council registry of gifts that is publicly accessible” (“Shire’s gifts register should be public” Letters 23/1/2018).
“A public gifts registry is another important element in showing our community that we take our Council responsibilities seriously,” Cr Gill stated in his letter.
Former state Liberal MP for Mornington, Robin Cooper, who was also a long term councillor with the former Shire of Mornington, last week called Mr Cowie’s reasons for not registering the type of “gobbledegook” that would be approved by Sir Humphrey Appleby of the “Yes Minister” TV series.
”It seems Mr Cowie and his councillors think they should be subject to a much more lenient level of public scrutiny [than state and federal MPs in declaring gifts},” Mr Cooper said (“Council should have transparent ‘gifts’ list” Letters 16/1/18).
Mr Cooper was also critical of four shire councillors who did not respond when asked if they thought accepting a free cruise on a ship hired by a prominent ratepayer should be declared on the shire’s gift list.
Two of the shire’s 11 councillors – Hugh Fraser and Frank Martin – had an automatic email response to say they were on leave. The four councillors who did not respond in any way were Simon Brooks, Sam Hearn, Kate Roper and Rosie Clark.
The ship hired by Mr Fox costs about $200,000 a day to charter and can carry more than 450 passengers. His guests included actor Hugh Jackman, TV personality and Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire, retail billionaire Solomon Lew and his Premier Investments CEO Mark McInnes, mining magnates Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, former Crown Casino boss and horse breeder Lloyd Williams, the Pratt family and politicians Bill Kelty and Jeff Kennett.