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The legislation and your council’s code of conduct and policies will provide clear guidelines as a starting point. When faced with an ethical decision, you should first consider these documents. However, the local government sector is unique in that councils, and by extension, councillors, have close contact with the community.
In your role as elected member, you need to manage relationships with a range of stakeholders who may have competing interests. While legislation and your council’s code of conduct and policies will be your key guides, the complex nature of local government means that elected members are required to exercise their own good judgement in making ethical decisions. To guide your ethical decision making, you should ask yourself questions such as:
Personal ethics and exercising good judgement are fundamental to the role of elected members. It is important to remember, however, that personal ethics are subjective. What meets one person’s own ethical requirements, may not meet another’s. Relying solely on your personal judgement when making ethical decisions can potentially lead to confusion and a lack of unity in the council. Legislation and your council’s code of conduct and policies must always take precedence over your personal ethics.
For example, your personal view may be that a decision made in a closed session of council should be shared with the community, even though the decision has been made by council to keep it confidential. Despite your personal views, you should be guided by the requirements of the Act and your council’s code of conduct.
Councillor A’s daughter has just finished her university degree and is looking for a job. At a council meeting, the corporate services manager provides a report on her team’s activities, noting that the Human Resources department has been swamped with work in recent months.
Following the meeting, Councillor A approaches the manager and tells her that he will support any proposal for a budget increase when the next budget is tabled. He also mentions that his daughter has just finished her studies, with a major in human resources, and is particularly keen to work in a local government environment.
When the budget proposals come before council, Councillor A votes in favour of an increase of staffing for the Human Resources department. Six months later, his daughter acquires a job with the council.
This situation has raised a number of ethical issues, including not acting in the public interest, not acting with integrity, conflict of interest, and use of power and authority. Other councillors may become aware that Councillor A’s daughter has been given a job at the council, and may believe that he voted in favour of the budget increase to get her a job.
This could affect Councillor A’s relationship with his fellow councillors, and build up tension in the council. Council staff may also become aware of how Councillor A’s daughter got the job, which will affect both her experience at council and the morale of the staff as a whole. The council administration may come to believe that, if they want Councillor A’s vote on an issue, they just need to give him something that he wants.
To improve the governance in the situation:
- the council should have a clear policy on councillor-staff interactions;
- the council should have a recruitment policy and ensure that people involved in recruitment processes declare any conflict of interest; and
- Councillor A should understand his obligations related to conflict of interest under the Act.
6This content has been reproduced with permission from the Integrity Commission website. See http://www.integrity.tas.gov.au/prevention_and_education/training_resources/search.