Ballina Shire Council has considered a motion which will affect events in the shire.
Ballina Shire Council has considered a motion which will affect events in the shire. DAVID NIELSEN

Council adopts child protection measures for events

BALLINA Shire councillors voted to increase child protection measures for groups they lease council venues to.

The notice of motion, lodged by councillor Keith Williams and deputy mayor Nathan Willis, could have originally seen events affiliated with Universal Medicine banned.

But before yesterday's meeting, organisers of UM-affiliated Girl to Woman Festival announced the event would not go ahead in January and UM directly cancelled 10 bookings at the Lennox Community Centre spanning until April 2020.

A NSW Supreme Court jury in a defamation trial recently found UM was a "socially harmful cult" and that its leader Serge Benhayon "engages in inappropriate conduct towards women", "is guilty of inappropriate behaviour with children" and "is not a fit person to hold a Working with Children Certificate", in a case where Mr Benhayon unsuccessfully sued former client Esther Rockett.

Rebecca Asquith from the Girl to Woman Festival urged councillors to oppose the motion.

"The Girl to Woman Festival volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds," she said.

"Whatever our differences, we are united by a common goal.

"We give back to our young community a day that appreciates them."

Cr Williams removed an explicit reference to Universal Medicine in light of the cancellations.

Cr Philip Meehan cautioned his colleagues it was a "complex matter" and suggested including a provision for Working with Children checks being required for event organisers hiring council spaces.

"I've worked in child protection for many decades, both in policy and implementation of policy," Cr Meehan said.

"We need to be working with fact and we need to be working with legislative process.

"Organisers like the Girl to Woman Festival would, I imagine, be more than willing to participate in that approach.

"That is something that organisation may choose to do or not ... but I think it's a consistent approach."

Cr Eoin Johnston raised concerns about mayor David Wright having attended a UM-affiliated Ageing Esoterically event in his official capacity, and moved that councillors and staff make "reasonable inquiries" into the "status of function organisers" before attending events on behalf of the council.

Cr Meehan and Cr Johnston's changes were adopted, and the motion passed 6-2, but not before they considered a pared-back version, which included the Working with Children check provision but left less room for subjective judgment.

Cr Jeff Johnson said he was concerned the council's powers would "be going into a moral area".

This was lost 3-5, and the prior four-part motion was carried 6-2, with councillors Johnson and Meehan voting against.

Councillors Sharon Parry and Ben Smith were absent.

The adopted motion stated the council would allow the general manager to amend the council's Child Protection Policy and Statement of Business Ethics in regards to determining its business dealings, that the council would request Working with Children checks from those leasing spaces when required and that councillors and staff should make "reasonable inquiries" into events before they attend.

Cr Williams welcomed the outcome, and criticised other councillors' concerns about taking action against UM events.

"I thought the argument that somehow we were just making a moral judgment out of thin air was quite wrong," he said.

"Clearly we've had a Supreme Court jury decision in relation to a defamation matter that's found some statements to be true about Universal Medicine and about Serge Benhayon.

"And, really, we can't ignore those. We can't just rely on Working with Children checks ... when we've got a finding that, in our community, there is a socially harmful cult that is active, that children might be at risk being involved in that."