14 February, 2022
By Lee O’Connor - Coonamble Times, deputy president Country Press NSW Inc
As communities around the country are crying out because the big corporate publishers shut down dozens of regional newspapers, leaving country and coastal towns without a voice, the NSW government has been quietly beavering away in the background to further reduce the places where the public can access information.
Back in April 2020, soon after the coronavirus first started slamming businesses, they quickly passed a law removing the requirement for council notices to be advertised in newspapers and instead allowing the rele- vant notice to be published only on the council’s web- site.
The government’s press release said that the changes would assist councils to “redirect resources to ensure the delivery of essential services to their communi- ties...” and to “provide financial relief to businesses and residents.”
The amendment was tacked onto a short list which gave councils scope to delay rates notices, waive fees for some of their services to business, and give them an extension of time to do some of their financial reporting.
Pardon me, but it is hard to see how removing pub- lic notices from the local paper would help deliver essential services and financially assist local businesses struck by covid.
And what about after the pandemic?
Fortunately, Coonamble and Bogan Shire Councils opted not to take up the opportunity to withhold public notices at the time, or since, but there it was and there it stays for any council who wants to use it.
It could be notices about tip fees, or rate increases, or who knows what, but shifting notices to online-only for- mat on a council website will remove it from the view of large sections of the population who don’t go trawl- ing local government websites each week looking for the latest things that might affect them.
Fast forward to January 2022, and these legislation mutations seem to be spreading like a virus.
The latest is an announcement by WaterNSW and the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR), which was perhaps ironically, printed in the public notices of some regional newspapers.
The Water Management Regulations have been changed so that “applications made to the respective agencies that require advertising will no longer need to be featured in newspapers.”
And it’s already started. “From January 2022, these applications will be advertised for the required 28 days on the respective agency’s website.”
This seems like tucking it away so no one will notice - unless you’re inclined to visit the various state govern- ment’s complex web of water-related websites on a reg- ular basis and check up to make sure that there’s no nasty surprises happening up river from your home,
farm or business. Even for those with ready access to a computer and internet, this move is a gigantic backward leap for open and transparent government.
Putting a public notice in your local newspaper puts these notices in front of thousands of people in a partic- ular area who want to keep up to date with what’s hap- pening in that particular area. What’s more, once pub- lished it’s there ‘in black and white’ and cannot be deleted, updated, edited or archived as can easily occur on websites.
Most newspapers are now available both in print and online formats and these public notices often trigger word-of-mouth mentions and discussions among groups with certain shared areas of interest such as residents along certain roads or rivers, who can - once alerted - contact the relevant department for more information.
These days, there is no requirement for any govern- ment-funded agency to advertise their services. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s happening at your Service NSW agency or hospital or courthouse or TAFE college.
Even the NSW Electoral Commission has ceased publishing public notices that contain useful informa- tion about elections - including when, where and how to vote - and now expects every adult in the state to be scouting their websites or social media pages looking for things they didn’t know were there.
Good for Google’s business, and good for Facebook. Not so great if you’re a small privately-owned newspa- per who used to receive a small boost from the pay- ments for vital information published during election time.
Among newspaper proprietors across the state there is a dawning recognition that our state government has no interest in “directing resources” or any “frontline covid response efforts” in any way to our industry regardless of how hard our sector has been hit by the pandemic.
The spread of this type of reductive legislation is the thin edge of a wedge that threatens to extend far into the future and across multiple departments, simultaneously putting at risk the viability of hundreds of small to medium sized businesses who publish the bulk of local newspaper titles across the state.
Regardless of whether you think governments should pay to put notices in the newspaper in the same way they have to pay to put fuel in their cars or planes, perhaps it’s time to take notice of this type of anti- democratic behaviour.
It is not a major money-saver, it certainly won’t improve the public’s access to information or boost the delivery of government services.
So, we need to ask ourselves - and our parliamentar- ians and bureaucrats - why this is happening?
Feel free to ring WaterNSW, NRAR, or the premier and ask them the question. We’d love to know the answer.