The City of Greater Geelong Council has appointed an independent investigator, former federal sex and disability discrimination commissioner Susan Halliday, to lead the inquiry. Ms Halliday also oversaw the Australian Defence Force abuse inquiry.
The Advertiser revealed there had been eight bullying complaints against council officers and five bullying complaints against councillors investigated in the past year. The inquiry process the stories prompted is expected to take 12 months at a cost of $200,000.
The story unfolded when a psychologist raised concerns with the Advertiser after he had treated numerous council staff for mental health issues related to toxic behaviour in their workplace.
The series of articles required careful and responsible journalism, said the newspaper’s editor Nick Papps.
“We had information from inside council that there’d been concerns for a number of years about bullying inside the organisation,” Mr Papps said.
“We set about investigating those claims and during our investigations, we discovered a psychologist had been seeing a lot of people from council who had been victims of bullying.
“He opened up and said he believed it was a massive issue and feared for the health of people in council, and had written to the council several times in relation to it.”
Journalists including Mandy Squires investigated further and more victims came forward. The Advertiser team set up an email address for victims and witnesses to share stories or information, and a section on their website, the “Bully Wall”, which told some of these stories, some anonymous.
“We had a lot of people write in about what had happened to them – it was empowering. They felt like they had a voice,” Mr Papps said.
“It became a groundswell of community support.”
As the momentum grew with a series of dramatic front pages in early February, the Advertiser put pressure on the government to launch an independent review to solve the problem. “It really speaks to the power of newspapers,” Mr Papps said. “We got the state government to express concern and the council to announce an independent inquiry.”
Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins announced she would visit Geelong following the paper’s revelations, councillor Jock Irvine spoke out about the behaviour of his fellow councillors, and council engineer Graham Hood told of two years of bullying he endured which he said left him unable to work.
Former mayor Keith Fagg, who retired from council in late 2013, has written to the Victorian Government twice about the need for a fully independent state inquiry, and says the Advertiser has undertaken important work in forcing the council to examine its culture.
“Being on council is not for the faint hearted and there are standards of behaviour that need to be met,” Mr Fagg said.
He praised the work of journalist Mandy Squires.
“When this matter was first raised, she took it very seriously,” Mr Fagg said. “She did a lot of investigative work before the story was published and brought out lots of other stories of bullying from council staff and councillors themselves. Some of these claims went back years.”
Staff didn’t trust the internal processes that were designed to deal with these matters, he said.
Mr Fagg was surprised when the story emerged, “because as councillors, we weren’t privy to reports unless they were anecdotal.
“I didn’t have any real idea of the extent of the issue.
“The Advertiser is to be commended for taking up these issues. It’s been well managed and as balanced as they can be.”
Mr Fagg said the paper had a critical role in Geelong, a large regional centre of more than 300,000 people.
“Having a paper of the quality of the Geelong Advertiser is a good thing for our community. It’s a longstanding paper that has respect around Geelong for many years. It gives credit where credit’s due as well as highlighting issues of concern.”
Mr Papps said the Council Bullies campaign had created an “interesting dynamic” between the paper and the council. “Council did not like the story coming out.”
However, the response from the community was overwhelmingly positive. A reader survey conducted by the Advertiser revealed 94 per cent believed the investigator’s report should be handed to the Victorian Government for further action.
“I was at a café down the coast in Barwon Heads on the weekend and they’ve still got cut outs of our front pages,” Mr Papps said. “You know when people cut out and keep our newspapers that they’re really moved by it.
“Our job is to shine a light in dark places. That’s the power of the local newspaper.
“If the investigation is not satisfactory, if it’s not a root and branch inquiry, we’ll go in hard again. We won’t rest.”
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