All NSW councils must adopt a new Code of Meeting Practice based on a revised model for meeting codes released by the NSW Office of Local Government to come into effect in June. Councils retained some discretion over optional parts of their code, but controversy for Armidale Regional Council came when it decided to replace the Civic Prayer at the opening of its meetings with an Civic Affirmation.
Council's draft copy of the new code went on public display and received 30 reactions from ratepayers, 70 had council counted signatures on a petition, wishing to see the prayer retained, and the proposal sparked an epic debate at council's Monthly Meeting on Wednesday, May 22.
In a democracy you cannot impose your beliefs onto everybody else ...Cr Deb O'Brien
In moving that the new Code of Meeting Practice be noted and adopted, Cr Bradley Widders said he had spoken extensively about the new code two months ago.
"I'm a little bit concerned that after all the chat we had about the code of practice, and every single change that certain councilor wanted put in put in, that the only submissions back, that we got, were on the Civic Prayer," Cr Widders said.
"You're not guaranteed that people sitting on these chairs will have any [religious belief]. With an affirmation everyone who sits here is under the same banner."
Cr Debra O'Brien seconded the motion and thought the beauty of this country was its religious freedom. She described it was being more important than any other heritage we have.
"The freedom to believe what we wish and not have to follow one State sanctioned religion," Cr O'Brien said.
"The kind of country that we have become is a more inclusive one. In a democracy you cannot impose your beliefs onto everybody else; it's a tough thing to accept, but we all have to accept it."
... the only one that divides us at the moment which is the retention of the civic prayer ...Cr Margaret O'Connor
Cr Dorothy Robertson suggested an amendment that lapsed.
Cr Ian Tiley suggested the amendment for the Civic Prayer to be retained, which was seconded by Cr Margaret O'Connor.
"I don't propose to speak on this, I've got my own values," he said.
"I just know there are enough people around this room who want to retain the prayer. This amendment gives you the opportunity to do that by voting down the recommendation in favour of the amendment."
Cr O'Connor said her concern was for the huge number of submissions received in favour of retaining the prayer.
"This allows us - if we could add a seriatim vote on this then we can drill down to the issue that is, I think, the only one that divides us at the moment which is the retention of the civic prayer," she said.
"So, I would second that and add a suggestion that we vote in seriatim."
Mayor Simon Murray said he thought council had to vote on the amendment first."
"Can I speak in favour of the amendment Mr Mayor," Cr Peter Bailey asked.
"Yes, I am just clarifying," Cr Murray said.
"Yes. Speaking for Cr Bailey?"
Cr Bailey said members of the muslim community he had spoken to said they might come forward with members of the Minister's Fraternal at a later date to change the wording, but they remained comfortable with the prayer.
"The Civic Prayer is a fairly general sort of prayer and I believe if we accept it the way it is it will be no different to what the Federal Parliament and the State Parliament do," he said.
POINT OF ORDER ... :
The meeting was halted briefly when Cr Widders began to speak against the amendment.
"Cr Widders and Cr O'Brien, because it is an amendment you can speak against it," Cr Murray said.
Cr Widders was interrupted when he began to speak and Cr Murray called the meeting and Cr Tiley to order and Cr Widders tried to continue.
"Point of order Mr Mayor, this councillor will speak three times on the one matter, he cannot do that," Cr Tiley said.
"Cr Tiley, I've got my learned colleagues either side that both concur that it is an amendment, and they can speak for or against the amendment, even if they have moved or seconded the motion," said Murray.
Cr Bailey and Cr Tiley moved a motion of dissent on Cr Murray's ruling, which was lost and Cr Murray's ruling held.
Proceedings ground to a halt while the meeting code was consulted, then Cr Margaret O'Connor said she wanted to foreshadow a motion that included further consultation with groups of other faiths, should the motion they were debating be lost.
When Cr O'Brien tried to speak on the amendment she was interrupted by Cr Bailey pointing out that she had already spoken and could not speak on the matter again. Cr Murray waited until the meeting settled before speaking.
"There is nothing in this, as I mentioned to Cr Tiley and yourself before, nothing stops the mover of the motion, so there for the seconder of the motion from speaking. So can we just let Cr O'Brien present her argument?" he said.
"Mr Mayor, the tradition is, you speak for the motion, against the amendment or for the amendment, against the motion - " Cr Tiley said.
"Mr Tiley," Cr Murray warned.
Cr Margaret O'Connor was determined to get her message across wile outlining in detail her reasons for wishing to retain the prayer. She ran out of time which led to a brief exchange with the mayor.
"Cr O'Connor, time," Cr Murray said.
" ... our community shines because of the Christian origins ..." Cr O'Connor continued.
"Cr O'Connor, you're finished. So - " Cr Murray said.
"I just want to finish my sentence, Mr Mayor - "
"I just want to finish my sentence - " she said.
"Cr O'Connor - "
"I think you can grant me that indulgence, Mr Mayor."
"Cr O'Connor, I know your sentences can take 10 minutes. So can we now - " Cr Murray said.
"I think that's an inappropriate comment. I want to finish the sentence Mr Mayor," Cr O'Connor replied.
"I think we should take this into consideration. The preferences of our community, Aboriginal and all faiths," she finished.
"Is there a speaker against the motion? Amendment - I apologise, I got lost then," Cr Murray said
Cr Widders had the final say in his right of reply and reiterated his regret that the Civic Prayer seemed to be the only thing in the whole complicated document that people seemed to be interested in.
The amendment was lost and Cr O'Connor's foreshadowed motion lapsed and the original motion was then passed.