‘Retract and apologise’

Update: Latrobe City Councillor Christine Sindt’s personal and councillor Facebook pages appear to have been taken down. 

A lawyer for Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester has formally requested Latrobe City Councillor Christine Sindt retract and unreservedly apologise for comments on her Facebook page.

Cr Sindt personally attacked Mr Chester in a post on her official councillor page on 11 June after he declared he would support legislation to legalise same-sex marriage.

The contents of the Facebook post cannot be reported for legal reasons.

Speaking publicly for the first time since Cr Sindt’s post, Mr Chester labelled her comments defamatory.

“I respect everyone’s right to have a view on such a significant issue but Cr Sindt’s comments were offensive, divisive and defamatory,” Mr Chester said.

“Public figures have an added responsibility to express their views in a calm, moderate and respectful manner and I will continue to participate in this debate in that fashion.

“The majority of Gippslanders who have contacted me via email, phone and social media have expressed their opinions in a calm and respectful manner.

“I believe decent people can have a difference of opinion on an issue like same-sex marriage and there is no place for personal attacks and defamatory comments.”

Mr Chester said he sought legal advice following Cr Sindt’s comments.

“As a result, my lawyer has formally written to Cr Sindt requesting a retraction and unreserved apology.”

Yesterday, Cr Sindt was not backing down, telling The Express she would not remove the post.

“He has put forward his opinion, I have put forward my opinion and everyone in the Gippsland community will have their opinion,” Cr Sindt said.

She said she had not received a letter from Mr Chester’s lawyer.

Cr Sindt said the comments were not meant to defame Mr Chester, however when asked to clarify the statement that many Facebook users took issue with, she could not.

She accused those who criticised her Facebook post of being politically-motivated.

“There will always be people who do their utmost to misinterpret any statement that I might make purely for political reasons,” she said.

She said she supported a referendum on same sex-marriage.

“I am just a councillor and everyone should have the opportunity to have their say and for that reason I believe that a referendum is definitely the best way to go.”

Community outraged

Cr Sindt’s post about Darren Chester drew outrage from Facebook users and at the time of going to print had 326 comments.

It has prompted the establishment of a change.org petition calling on the Municipal Association of Victoria president Bill McArthur and Latrobe City mayor Dale Harriman to suspend or remove Cr Sindt as a councillor.

At the time of going to print it had almost 2000 signatures.

However, neither the MAV nor Latrobe City has the power to do so under the current laws.

“Under the Local Government Act 1989 councillors must follow a set of standards that reflect public expectations of their conduct,” MAV President, Cr Bill McArthur said.

“Each council must adopt a Councillor Code of Conduct.”

Mr McArthur said if a councillor was alleged to have breached their code of conduct, councils and councillors were able to apply for the establishment of a Councillor Conduct Panel which can direct a councillor to make an apology or take a leave of absence for up to two months.

The State Government plans to review the Local Government Act, including how it relates to councillor standards and governance.

In a statement, Latrobe City mayor Dale Harriman said council was aware of the community sentiment regarding Cr Sindt’s Facebook comments and the view of any one councillor did not represent the view of council as a whole.

At the time of going to print, council had received five formal complaints about Cr Sindt’s comments, along with feedback on its Facebook page.

Councillor Conduct Panel appointed

It is not the first time Cr Sindt’s behaviour has been publicly called into question.

An independent panel will examine whether Cr Sindt has breached the councillor code of conduct, after three of her fellow councillors lodged complaints against her earlier this year.

It followed controversial Facebook posts made by Cr Sindt which referred to Islam and comments on ABC Melbourne radio in which she referred to the Islamic community and radical extremists as “pretty much the same”.

She later attended the Reclaim Australia Rally in Melbourne on Easter weekend.

Members of the two-person panel have now been appointed by the MAV.

It is not yet known when proceedings will begin, however Cr Sindt has previously indicated she does not intend to appear before the panel.