Last meeting of 11th Council descends into chaos

Relationship between Mayor Ryan and Alds Melky and Habib Bitar has become unworkable

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

The final meeting of the 11th Alice Springs Town Council started with fine sentiments and a few tears but descended into a brawl before the night was out.

The aldermen not seeking re-election – Murray Stewart, Sandy Taylor and John Rawnsley (Jane Clark was absent) – were presented with framed certificates acknowledging their service by Mayor Damien Ryan.

They all spoke, with undoubted sincerity, about the privilege and honour of the role and Ald Taylor cried, as she did on the day of her investiture four years ago.

The meeting then proceeded fairly calmly, often even blandly, until questions without notice, when Ald Rawnsley demanded of Ald Samih Habib Bitar an apology for what he considered a “highly offensive” remark.

Ald Habib Bitar, who is seeking re-election and also running for mayor, had apparently compared council’s approach to graffiti removal (requiring the property owner to act, with penalty for non-compliance) to a measure of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. He refused to apologise, arguing that the comment was historically accurate – a comparable measure had been introduced in Germany in 1941, he said.  Council’s by-law was a “re-victimisation of the victim” and an attack on human rights, he contended.

The ensuing slanging match saw Ald Rawnsley accused by Alds Stewart and Melky of “electioneering” by using the meeting to attack a mayoral candidate, with Ald Rawnsley becoming increasingly upset and Ald Taylor leaving the chamber.

Ald Stewart suggested that Lebanese-born Ald Habib Bitar should be cut some slack as he comes from “a very different environment” and may understand the reference to Hitler’s Germany differently. Ald Habib Bitar didn’t much like this line of defence, reminding the chamber that he had lived in Alice Springs a very long time. Somewhere in his on-going heated exchange with Ald Rawnsley, which continued no matter who else was trying to say something, Ald Habib Bitar apparently swore and was reminded by the mayor of the code of conduct for the chamber.

Mayor Ryan alternated between joining in – he too was unimpressed by Ald Habib Bitar’s comparison – and trying to restore order, finally calling a five minute break to allow things to cool down. The relationship between him and Alds Melky and Habib Bitar has become unworkable and will provide an ongoing distraction in the new council if it’s not sorted at election time.

The tense atmosphere over-shadowed the more worthwhile initiative of Ald Rawnsley that followed: pale-faced and almost unable to speak, he proposed a motion to call on both the NT and Australian governments to provide more policing resources to Alice Springs “on a sustainable basis”. He linked the call to the announcement yesterday that the Australian Government has provided $53 million to deliver 94 more police to Darwin, primarily to ensure good order at the city’s immigration detention facility. He also linked it to the “continued role of Australian Government policy in this region”. He said that it’s “a fact” that the town’s law and order issues are related to the Intervention.

The motion was carried unanimously. An additional motion by Ald Habib Bitar to have the federal police intervene in Alice was defeated.

PICTURED clockwise from top right: Aldermen John Rawnsley, Samih Habib Bitar and Sandy Taylor.

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21 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Hal Duell
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    @John
    If what you suggest is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, in four years time we in Alice will have our representation in Darwin reduced from 3 to 2.
    I rest my case. We have to forge a way without Darwin or be forever content with the scraps.
    We deserve better, and if we pull as a team, we can get better. I say go it alone. Central Australia is a truly unique part of Australia, and of the world. Let’s declare it so and do it proud.

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  2. Janet Brown
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Blah blah blah John. If it walks like a duck quacks like a duck. Then your telling us it could not possibly be a duck. Your explanation seems to lack factual information. Maybe after Erwin’s article councils secret. That tells us that the current council seems to find it impossible to tell the truth. Sssshhhhh. The truth is hidden in confidential. So how much would that be in total in the last four years your lot have squandered of ratepayers’ monies. Just guessing from what is out there and not hidden in confidential. It comes in over $3m. So rates have to rise to cover your incompetence and your worried and upset of some name calling.

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  3. John Rawnsley
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Hal – your proposal for a two tiered government is one way of seeking structural reform. Others have put that there should be two separate areas within the Territory. Other options include regional interests being embedded in the way finances are distributed (this is currently done for GST at a national level to the States under horizontal fiscal equalisation).
    Whatever option is pursued, my point below is that it can be achieved either through the Commonwealth Parliament amending legislation or through the design of a new constitution. The video and our campaign has fervently worked in the interests of regions (and Alice Springs). The process for a convention to design a new constitution has stalled. The current government, with bipartisan support, sought to have an election of delegates on March 24 alongside the LG elections. The Opposition withdrew its support and committed, sometime in the future, for a separate and independent election of delegates.
    When the Statehood debate re-ignites, the debate over the relationship between the capital centre and regions will be even more sensitive because the political power of the greater Darwin area is growing at an accelerated rate. This rate is so fast that, at the next election in four years’ time it is nearly certain that the number of Alice Springs members of Parliament will be reduced from 3 to 2 (or one seat will include both bush and town electors).
    Political power will be reduced in the regions and concentrated in greater Darwin. The video, and Town Council’s campaign, will be a crucial and leading role amongst the regions in a push for constitutional protection if Statehood does take place. In our many meetings Council has been careful not to assume a position either in favour or against Statehood.
    Ian – the line that those who oppose the curfew are not concerned with the welfare of children has been used time and time again. You can refer to a Mayoral candidate’s comments at the start of this current campaign (early March) in the Advocate, for example.
    Janet – the video does not support Statehood. I’m not sure how many different ways I can say this. And the next time you or Steve go on radio and talk about how political correctness has sent the world mad, and that people fear expressing themselves because they will be called “racist”, remember your assertion that this is “petty politics” and that you don’t get “involved” in it.

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  4. Hal Duell
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    @John
    I agree with you that we need structural reform to empower the regions, but I wonder why you want to filter this reform through another State? To me this seems like a 19th century solution to a 21st century situation.
    Why not go for a two tier system of government? I wonder if that wouldn’t suit Central Australia much better than to be forever a poor country cousin to the Top End.
    Their focus is Asia. Ours is here.

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  5. Ian Sharp
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    I attended a council meeting last year and left thinking why would any reasonable person put themselves through that. On many issues it seemed that the Council was divided, with a majority opposed by the same three Alderman. Alderman Habib’s behaviour was simply rude and his arguments illogical. Alderman Melky was articulate, determined, and persistent despite not having the numbers. He just went on and on. And became illogical and muddled. Alderman Stuart argued his case strongly but with less rancour.
    At no stage did he resort to the “you are in favour of harm to children if you do not agree with a curfew” line. I left the meeting with more respect for him than I had before. I also left with a strong sense that Damien Ryan and the other aldermen deserve a medal.
    For Council to work effectively there needs to be greater rationality, tolerance, respect … and less grandstanding and self-indulgent behaviour.
    Interesting article in last Friday’s Advocate by Rolf Gerritson (sorry Erwin). Worth a read.
    [ED – No worries, Ian. We love competition.]

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  6. Janet Brown
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 9:06 am

    Really John I am not concerned with your squabbles with others Steve and I are agree to disagree on many things but what we do agree with I not taking sides in petty arguments. To advocate for support on who is right or wrong is not only petty but insulting to those who do not participate in one up man ship. And next Steve has never enquirer about statehood. He does not support it but Steve is Steve and I am me. Two different people with different ideas and sometime ideologies. If am still at a loss how with 4 town councils Alice Springs was the only one to put together a video in support of statehood. No matter how you want to dress it up John by reference to statehood a piece of fiction. As it now is. You asserted your position to promote something that had once been rejected by territorians. And was not yet validated by the people of the territory whist advocating through council home page Alice Springs support for statehood. The residents were not asked if they support statehood you assumed they did or worse you decided what you wanted regardless of a people’s democrats voice. You assume to much John. And now for all to see statehood is closed down and again I ask make public how much of rate payers money did you spend on your promotion to promote your views.

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  7. John Rawnsley
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Janet, recently I spent a significant amount of time correcting the person whose campaign you are managing: Steve Brown. It’s a waste of time to do this. I find myself doing it again.
    First, the Statehood video is not a video “promoting Statehood”. It’s a video as part of a broader campaign which says that if Statehood takes place the new constitution which will underpin the State must protect and empower regions. This is one of only two ways to achieve structural reform in the way we are governed (the other is legislative change from the Commonwealth Parliament, which is highly unlikely). I have written extensively about the reasons why structural reform is necessary. I suggest you read this material.
    Second, the Federal Government did not “put it on ice and closed it down”. The process stalled because bipartisan support for the previously agreed process was withdrawn. It was withdrawn, partly, because some caucus members on the Opposition side felt more concerned about their own position then a public debate about why structural reform is important (and were able to overturn their leader’s statements). This is a story for another day.
    Third, I sat next to Terry Mills when, in front of the cameras, he made his commitment to the process. Many months later he withdrew his support and said he “didn’t think it through”. Money was committed to the process during these months (and before based on the principle of bipartisanship).
    In my view the Town Council is correct in taking the lead on advocating structural reform to empower and protect the interests of regions. No other politician in Alice Springs is doing this. If you want to pass judgement on whether this is a waste of money or not I suggest you read the reasons why structural reform is important first.
    (This debate is very different to the head story – Steve and Janet, what are your views on me being called racist by two other Alderman during the Adolf Hitler / Alice Springs debate? Usually you both jump at this type of politics in our town but have been silent this time around).

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  8. Janet Brown
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 7:28 am

    I have been demanding that the Alice Springs Town Council removes the video from its web site promoting Statehood. And this Video contains mostly John Rawnsley. And the end with Damian Ryan. I have always advocated against statehood. And today on the ABC the federal government has put it on ice and closed it down. Yea, finally commonsense has found its way to the top. Next let’s do an investigation into the NT Government, how much they have spent on Statehood. And also how much Alice Springs council spent on that video. And why a local government body involved themselves in statehood promotion.

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  9. Russell Guy
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Ray, you’re obviously a newcomer to this debate. Welcome.
    A take-away alcohol free sales day was successfully trialled in Tennant Creek from 1995 – 2006 (Thirsty Thursday). Positive results “included declines in alcohol sales, alcohol-related harm and alcohol-related offences”. The restriction also appeared to have a high level of community support.
    There was a 7.5% increase in the sale and consumption of pure alcohol when the arrangement ceased in 2006′ (PAAC Senate submission to the Stronger Futures legislation. 6/2/12).
    It hasn’t been tried in Alice Springs and needs to be introduced NT-wide, providing respite for families and drinkers both in towns and in Aboriginal communities.
    There would be very minimal inconvenience to the majority who are responsible drinkers, but it would help address the disadvantage and inequality that the most impoverished members of our community face. There are many reasons for this and I direct you to Deputy Mayor Liz Martin’s recent post at the “Big Ideas in Tourism” story for reference.
    One of the most pressing needs for this type of restriction is that take-away is an uncontrolled supply source as opposed to a pub / club environment where drinking levels are monitored (70% of liquor sold in the NT is take-away).
    Another is the economic cost of statistically proven excessive alcohol consumption to the taxpayer, past, present and future escalating (twice the national level in Alice). Further associated stats can be found by googling the Alice Springs News Online archive under “Central Australia is perishing for a drink”.
    Finally, there are the 2009 results of the first ever survey of children’s development in the first years of school, the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) which reveal that two thirds of central Australian children are developmentally vulnerable in the areas of physical health, well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills (school based), communication skills and general knowledge. Aboriginal children have much higher rates.
    It’s well reported that Australia is lagging in the education field and that we have challenging alcohol consumption figures, but don’t believe me, check out the AEDI statistics for yourself (Google it).
    The point has been made by PAAC and the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC) that disadvantage is a key factor in predisposition to “poor educational attainment, low incomes, poor life expectancy and the development of addictions including alcohol”. Familiarise yourself with some of the reason for disadvantage – they’re not all historical.
    Parental alcohol addiction and child brain development are linked, both behaviourally and in Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). We’re paying for this while we support the current situation of pub take-away sales. Responsible consumption or leadership? I don’t think so.
    Take-away alcohol sales free day’s will help in further reducing the supply of alcohol (a critical factor), allowing evaluation of its effect and also, at least, serving to improve the educational attainment, parental responsibility, employment opportunities and housing initiatives of government programs, for which we have voted and pay.

    2PM – 9PM Mon-Fri. 10AM – 9PM Sat. 12 –PM Sun

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  10. Ray
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 9:52 am

    @1. “I’ve been advocating the untried, yet proven take-away alcohol sales free day/s restriction.”
    How can something that is untried, be proven? There have been many, many trials, new restrictions, reductions in hours, limitations on types of alcohol that can be purchased etc.
    Bottom line is we have a large group of people who have no purpose in life, no goals, no obligations, and alcohol is the easiest drug to get hold of to ease the pain and hopelessness. The simple solution is not just to show your ID to buy grog, but to show a current pay slip. But then again, there is really no simple solution. If restrictions work, how come we see an increase in anti-social behaviour that involves alcohol despite more and more people on the banned drinkers register. This is why crime levels are increasing, because they cannot buy it, so they steal it. I see the Town and Country Tavern was hit again on Tuesday night. This town and the Mall could be a foodies paradise like Mitchell Street, vibrant and alive, but who would open an eatery just to have it smashed every night?

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  11. Russell Guy
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    John, I’ve already posted my appreciation for your stand in Council below, but I’ve been reflecting today and I’d like to add, “I wish there was more like you.”
    As you may be aware through these posts, I’ve been advocating the untried, yet proven take-away alcohol sales free day/s restriction which I believe is necessary – not an option – if Alice is to have a chance of moving out of the ditch caused by statistically proven, ongoing, as yet unstoppable, excessive alcohol consumption.
    The general mood among candidates for your old and noble post is that restrictions haven’t worked or that they’re “prohibition,” both illogical, given the above.
    Logic and reason are subjective as the historical events to which you so admirably spoke in Council subsequently revealed, but please don’t fade away at this hour.
    There is still a chance that the next generation of those most vulnerable to the effects of alcohol abuse may not have to end up in the ditch to which the majority of this generation is directing the present.

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  12. Jodie Summers
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Well done Rawnsley, Eli Melky has brought nothing but divisiveness and disrepute to the Alice Springs Council. The people want a council that works “together” to improve the town, address issues to the best of their ability but most of all treat each other respectfully through support and debate. It’s a shame that all Stewart’s hard work over his years on council now are diminished through his boarding of the Melky train during his last year on council. If he agreed with Melky sentiments he would have kept people’s respect by making sound arguments instead of the hate inciting, emotional diatribe of Ald Melky. Highly embarrassing behavior.

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  13. Posted March 14, 2012 at 7:50 am

    An excellent response, John. It’s easy to see why you are so passionate about seeking an apology.Impressed by your assertive (not aggressive) approach to this issue. Many thanks for your contributions to Council over the past four years…looking forward to your continuing contributions to our wonderful town in other capacities over time.

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  14. jocelyn davies
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    good on you john for taking on habib’s outrageously bad behaviour. thanks for sharing that story of your family’s heritage and your journey of learning about the horrors of nazi germany. and thanks for your thoughtful and cool headed service to us during your council term.

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  15. Nicky Schonkala
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Thank you, John Rawnsley

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  16. Russell Guy
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Well said, John.

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  17. Steve Brown
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I thought one of the more interesting discussions raised on the night, probably also relating to the intervention and policing issues was the fact that the temporary supported accommodation facility, the name escapes me, was full to the brim and that as a result Council Rangers were encountering several hundred illegal campers a night in the river.
    As an electrician who visits a large number of houses on a weekly basis I can also tell you that there seems to be considerably more overcrowding in many of the housing unit blocks at presents. Last night’s Council meeting decided to deal with this by writing to the federal minister and requesting the urgent construction of further supported accommodation. I think this request requires emergency consideration along with some measures to slow what is beginning to amount to a crisis similar to the refugee crisis of elsewhere. It’s time for a considered plan of action not just a continuing line of ad hoc emergency measures that fail to come to grips with the issues driving the migration, or what can be done to slow it to a rate with which Alice can cope.

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  18. Hal Duell
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Alderman Rawnsley was naïve to think Alderman Habib Bitar would apologise for his remarks. He also forgot the truism that the first person to mention the Nazis loses the argument. Sami lost it a fortnight ago; John gave it back to him last night.
    And Aldermen Stewart and Melky – as seen from the gallery, by the manner of your jumping in you brought the Alice Springs Town Council into disrepute.
    You were in the chair, Mayor Ryan. I know two in the attacking pack have declared against you in the Mayoral race, but still, you were in the chair.
    That is my impression of how the open section of the last public meeting of the 11th Alice Springs Town Council descended into shame last night.
    Alderman Sandy Taylor was the only person in the room to respond appropriately – she walked out.
    It shames me that I didn’t. The fascination of watching a train wreck was just too great.

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  19. Posted March 13, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    I would like to publicly thank outgoing Alderman John Rawnsley for his contribution over the past four years. He has been dedicated, professional, always on the side of the underdog and a champion for social justice. I fully appreciate his distress and sympathise with his position. To say that anything in Alice Springs, the NT or indeed Australia compares to Nazi Germany or a dictatorship trivialises the very real trauma that those whose family were involved DO feel generations later.
    I am also offended at the lack of respect shown to Council’s Code of Conduct and the continual use of the “F” word in the Chamber by the same mayoral candidate. Now, I’m no prude; with my background I’ve heard it forever and have no problems in saying I have used it myself – but there’s a time and place for everything and using it in the Chamber shows no respect for council protocol, fellow elected members, our directors or the members of the public present, especially the women!
    John, I know you were acknowledged by Council collectively last night but I would also personally like to thank you. While we did not always agree you were assertive with your stance (as opposed to aggressive) and truly believed in your cause helping me understand new depths on issues I had not thought out previously. I wish you well in your chosen path and genuinely hope ours cross again in the future.
    While I am at it I also thank Alderman Sandy Taylor who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes with her many responsibilities particularly with access, community grants and the sporting fraternity without public fanfare. Ditto to Alderman Jane Clark whose position was always well thought out and researched whether supported or not and Alderman Murray Stewart whose “out of left field” ideas always provided food for thought and whose late night calls were really the only persuasion I had from any-one on council to change my mind on issues.
    I think it is a truly sad state of affairs for this town when such division is caused that our group of nine, mayor and aldermen, could not sit back after the last meeting enjoying a “responsible” glass of red with our directors to celebrate our achievements and perhaps lament a few things we could have handled better.

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  20. Sean
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Thank goodness it’s all over. It will be interesting to see whom Alice Springs picks next. Finally the people will speak.

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  21. John Rawnsley
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 10:27 am

    At the Feb 27th Council meeting Ald Habib said that an Alice Springs by-law was “exactly the same” as “Adolf Hitler’s Germany”.
    When I noted the offensive nature of the comments and that an apology was an appropriate response I was told that:
    • I was “electioneering by surrogate”.
    • All I wanted to achieve was a “headline in the newspaper”.
    • I was “racist” (or the by-law is racist, I can’t quite make out the logic).
    • I wanted Ald Melky and Habib Bitar to leave Australia and that this was the next step.
    • I took Ald Habib Bitar’s comments “out of context” and they are not offensive.
    • There was nothing to be apologetic for and the comments are acceptable.
    • Nazi Germany was run by a Dictator and so is Alice Springs.
    • I’m doing this to avoid a debate about the actual by-law.
    Two Alderman amongst the three defending the comments and questioning my motivations were being smug and were laughing at the situation. Ald Habib Bitar’s comment was made on the 27th February. The Council election is 24th March. My motivations were seen as dishonest for raising the issue between these two time periods and at my final meeting.
    My wife’s great grandmother was the only one of 13 in her family who survived the holocaust. My wife is interested in learning about most things about the world but refuses to learn about Nazi Germany. I have read of how we not only pass genes down to our children (and so forth) but that behaviours, impulses, memories can also carry on, often in subtle ways. How I respond to something reflects ways that certain lines of my heritage responded. I could not imagine what it was like for those directly affected by the holocaust (and any act of genocide). I have no doubt that Nazi Germany has left an imprint for many generations to come. These generations, and their lost family members, are the “victims” who were “punished” by Hitler’s Germany, not a person in Alice Springs affected by a by-law.
    In Washington last year I spent hours walking through the Holocaust museum. I met survivors who volunteered. I walked through hallways where photograph displays of family portraits of those who were lost rose above the height of the wall until they disappeared. I learnt about the lead up to the holocaust and saw many visuals and stories of what had happened. I saw others crying as they walked through. An actual door with markings and signs was displayed. At one part an extensive cabinet with thousands of figurines showed mostly women and children lining up to go down to a lower level for what they were told were showers. At the other end were operating tables where jewellery and gold were removed.
    I saw video footage and historical info about surgeons performing all kinds of tests. I saw that what was done was not only Jews but disabled and gay people. At one stage was a pile-up of burnt out shoes. I learnt about the international response and how dedicated journalists and radio announcers constantly gave updates of what was happening. The Olympics were held and were hailed as a success (propaganda by Germany to show that nothing bad was happening). Some Western countries went from dealing with the issue of mass migration of Jews (even turning back boats) to intervening. I learnt about individual stories of people who, by luck, escaped extermination and were never to be reunited with their family. I saw a section which was named after a book a journalist had given me many years ago here in Alice. The book sought to teach young children what had happened.
    I visited the museum twice and left with a distinct impression with what took place. I came away knowing how serious these issues are and how they deserve a special place in our memory – not to be confused or compared to more mundane things.
    To compare an Alice Springs by-law to the actions of Adolf Hitler by saying that both “punish the victim” is abhorrent. To trivialise what happened in Nazi Germany by drawing bleak comparisons to what happens in Alice Springs is to deny the hurt and pain by those affected by the holocaust. To defend such comments disgusts me. To question my motives, and to hold the view that there is no substantive issue with the comparison made, is inexcusable. To laugh smugly and treat the situation as a joke is distressing.
    I don’t mind having a debate about the by-laws and I know the arguments put against it are made by reasonable people (just as those in favour are made by reasonable people). What I do no accept, and what I see as entirely inappropriate and unreasonable, are comparisons made to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Such arguments are not made by reasonable people.
    Alderman John Rawnsley

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