NEWCASTLE LaborCouncillor Declan Clausen has accusedhis Liberal Party opponents of “gross hypocrisy”after an expense report revealed former councillor Lisa Tierney claimed almost $800 in carer bills during her time at city hall.
But Liberal Brad Luke has dismissed the claim as “rubbish”and criticised Cr Clausen’s own spending habits, pointing out that the first-term councillorhas racked up the thirdhighest expense costof any ward councillor despite only being elected at the start of 2015.
It comes asfigures to be tabled at next week’s meetingshow the city’s local representatives have racked up a $250,000 expense bill since the 2012 election. By far the biggest spender was Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes, whose $62,000 billequalled aquarter of the perks claimed in the last four years.
Cr Nelmes defended her higher spend, saying the Lord Mayor’s job was“more than full-time job” and her claims were “in line with most preceding mayors”.
The figures were produced at the request of Cr Clausen after recent criticism of Cr Nelmes’spending habits.
In February Cr Luke criticised Cr Nelmes for charging ratepayers $241for childcare while on an overseas junket to Singapore. In March, before her resignation,Ms Tierney accused the lord mayor of“an excessive misuse of council funds to pay for overseas trips”.
But Cr Clausen has used the expense figures to hit back. In an opinion piece published in the Newcastle Heraldhe accused Ms Tierney of “gross hypocrisy”, saying she “used more than three times the mayor’s amount for childcare, despite only attending 60 per centof council meetings”.
“Rather than champion women in local government, Cr Tierney was happy to bill ratepayers almost $800 for childcare and then let her conservative colleague’s deride the Lord Mayor for using far less,” he wrote.
But Cr Luke dismissed the criticism, arguinghe had only said “the public wouldn’t support claiming childcare while on an overseas,councilpaid trip”.
“My comment was solely about claiming childcare while on an overseastrip,that’s very different,” he said.
Cr Clausen also took aim at Cr Luke for having the highest expenses of any ward councillor –$22,655 – accusing him of “lazy politics”.
“Brad Luke is a frequent critic of councillor expenses, particularly for overseas travel [but] despite this, Cr Luke has been one of the largest users of travel entitlements, charging ratepayers a $5,790 for his trips,” he wrote.
Cr Luke said Cr Clausen’s criticism was “surprising”, given his own expenses–$19,500 –were higher than many councillors who served a whole term.
“I’m surprised Declan is the one who asked for the report when the only thing that stands out to me is that his expenses are the same as everyone else’s even though he’s only been on the council half the time,” he said.
But Cr Clausen said a“significant amount” of expenses like the cost of a council mobile, iPad and printer, were fixed.
“Additionally, early in my term I undertook a Company Director course at the urging of the former General Manager,” he said.
“I understand that Crs Luke, Dunn, Osborne, Tierney, Waterhouse and Nelmes had also completed this course.”
Ms Tierney, who did not comment on Cr Nelmes’ carer expenses when the issue was printed on the front page of a Sydney News Corporation tabloid, said Cr Clausen was “diverting ratepayers attention away from the real issue”, of “misuse of ratepayer funds on excessive overseas trips”.
“The way to avoid overseas expenses is to avoid overseas travel,” he said.
“I was not concerned about councillors accessing childcare if needed within policy however I was concerned with the amount of international travel voted and approved at council meetings [including] travel to Geneva, Ecuador, Singapore and the U.S,” she said.
“Overseas travel should be avoided by local councils.
“There are many ways to connect and access innovation without sending staff and councillors across the world.”
Under council rules, councillors are allowed to claim up to $6000 per year in carer expenses.
The rule was introduced to encourage women and other under-represented groups in local government.
But Cr Luke said he didn’t believe“average ratepayers” would have access to the same benefits.
“Do most workplaces get babysitting paid for in order to go to work?,” he said.
“Ithink any political body needs to be careful that the things paid for them are the type of things that would normally be paid for in a workplaceenvironment.
“Weneed to be very careful of giving ourselves benefits that ratepayerswould not normally get.”
Greens Councillor Therese Doyle –who has claimed $14,172 since 2012 –said his comments showed he “didn’t understand the point” of civic office, and said the rules were vital to “give women the opportunityto participate in civic office”.
“The reality is that women stillhave the most responsibilityfor the care of children,” she said.
“I’m not going to complain about anybody claiming childcare benefits, in fact it’s something I want to champion.
“It means being able to represent people if you’re someone who isn’t a developer or someone with a lot of money …it’s about who has access.”
Cr Nelmes declined to comment on the carers issue –other than to say shewas “supportive of mothers or fathers or carers on council” –and that the expense was “a legitimate claim”.
She said that her higher proportion of expense claims had only eventuated after becoming lord mayor.
“My expenses as a councillor are 8 per centand 6.6 per centof the total allocation,” she said.
“As Lord Mayor they reflect the full time role as opposed to a councillor role that can be at minimum only 10 hours per month.”