5 May 2022

Greens MLA's letter to constituents raises questions over local politicians' role during election

| Lottie Twyford
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A letter sent from Brindabella Greens MLA Johnathan Davis to his constituents has raised the hackles of the Opposition. Photo: Supplied.

ACT Greens MLA for Brindabella Johnathan Davis has been referred to the Commissioner for Standards over a letter he sent to his constituents endorsing his Federal Greens counterparts.

The Opposition first aired their concerns in the chamber on Tuesday (3 May), not over its contents but because he had included the ACT Legislative Assembly’s address and his Assembly email and phone number.

Canberra Liberals Whip Nicole Lawder, who moved a motion calling on the Assembly to refer Mr Davis to the Commissioner, described his letter as an “appalling use of Assembly resources”.

“If you receive this letter in your mailbox and you have a suggestion or a question – where are you going to go?” she questioned.

“You’re going to call that number and it will be answered by Mr Davis or one of his Assembly staff – sitting in a lovely, climate-controlled building paid for by the ACT taxpayer … which Mr Davis is meant to be using for the matters of the Assembly, not to promote his Federal counterparts.”

Nicole Lawder

Nicole Lawder MLA moved the motion in the Assembly to have Mr Davis referred to the Commissioner for Standards. Photo: Region Media.

It comes less than a month after all members of the Assembly were sent a letter by the Clerk reminding them of their obligations to only use public resources for what they are intended for.

According to the Clerk’s letter circulated to all MLAs, “use of publicly funded entitlements and resources in connection with election and political campaigning would amount to improper use”.

The letter said “mail distribution for non-electorate or non-parliamentary activities” would constitute an example of improper use.

Mr Davis sought to ward off a fight by self-referring his actions to the Commissioner and although Labor indicated they would not support the motion, it went through the Assembly unopposed.

He said he was both “comfortable and confident with the advice he received from the Clerk and the Electoral Commissioner, with the due diligence that I undertook to ensure that any correspondence made with [his] electorate is done in accordance with the Members’ Code of Conduct”.

“I’m very comfortable with accountability and transparency for my decisions and the decisions made by anyone else in this room.”

Johnathan Davis

ACT Greens MLA Johnathan Davis refuted Ms Lawder’s claims he had improperly used Assembly resources. Photo: ACT Government.

Mr Davis refuted the claim made by Ms Lawder that he had used Assembly resources in the preparation of the correspondence.

He said the letter had been produced and paid for by the ACT Greens party and distributed by party volunteers, including himself. He argued he had only included his email address and phone number so his constituents could find him and he could “best serve them”.

Mr Davis also noted there has been no secrecy around the letter given he had posted on his Facebook page about it.

“It wasn’t like this was something I wanted to hide from members of the Opposition … in fact, it was something I proudly promoted.”

Labor questioned the use of the motion, with Government whip Suzanne Orr arguing Ms Lawder could simply have referred Mr Davis to the Commissioner for Standards herself without needing to bring it to the Assembly.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury then sought the advice of Speaker Joy Burch as to how members should be correctly referred to the Commissioner while characterising Ms Lawder’s motion as a “political attack”.

Last year, a similar situation occurred when Canberra Liberals’ MLA James Milligan was referred to the Commissioner for Standards by the Assembly via a motion supported by Labor and the Greens, but he’d already self-referred.

Canberra Liberals MLA Jeremy Hanson said at the time he believed the Assembly referring an MLA to the Commissioner could undermine its independence.

Mr Milligan was cleared of any wrongdoing.

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Members of the ACT Legislative Assembly are not to carry out the following activities using publicly-funded entitlements and resources:

  • direct electioneering of political campaigning, including letterboxing by staff while on duty
  • mail distribution for non-electorate or non-parliamentary activities
  • meeting costs associated with election campaigning or fundraising for any individual or candidate in an election
  • meeting costs normally borne by political parties, and
  • use of Assembly offices as campaign offices.

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