Abbott actions reveal toxic culture in council

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Peter_Abbott, Michael Neoh, Denis Napthine
Flagstaff Hill manager Peter Abbott, right, with Mayor Michael Neoh and former Premier Denis Napthine. Mr Abbott has been exposed for writing critical, anonymous comments about councillors in an online forum. Image: Warrnambool City Council.

OPINION – Carol Altmann

The exposure of senior Warrnambool City Council manager Peter Abbott as the author of anonymous comments to the local newspaper attacking some councillors has revealed a toxic culture developing within its walls.

The local newspaper has today named Mr Abbott, who is the head of the council’s tourism services and manager of the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, as the author of a string of comments to its online forum in which he regularly targeted Crs Peter Hulin and Brian Kelson while hiding behind a pseudonym.

This is not the actions of some junior staff member, over-excited by the opportunities of social media to air his spleen anonymously.

It is the actions of an experienced, highly-paid council manager who has set out to systemically discredit two of the people elected to represent ratepayers.

Mr Abbott cannot claim to have had a single rush of blood to the head.

Instead, he has carefully differentiated between commenting under his real name and making up a string of names such as Robinhood, Trash and Smallman to accuse Cr Kelson, in particular, of making false claims, getting his facts wrong, and failing to attend meetings.

These are highly personal attacks, designed to diminish the public’s view of elected members that – as representatives of the people – Mr Abbott is paid to serve.

If he was a senior public servant within the state or federal government making anonymous, critical attacks on MPs, he would have been dismissed for behaviour that is unethical, unprofessional and totally inappropriate.

The question is, how did Mr Abbott come to think that his behaviour was acceptable and, now that it has been exposed, how has he survived in his position?

brian kelson
Cr Brian Kelson was one of the councillors in Mr Abbott’s sights for personal attacks. Image: Warrnambool City Council.

Mr Abbott’s actions are indicative of a toxic culture that has been allowed to flourish within the council that considers some people – in particular Crs Kelson, Hulin and Sycopoulis – to be fair game.

It is a culture fed by a misguided belief that a council should be passive by not asking too many questions, not rocking the boat and agreeing to every decision as a united front.

Those who refuse to fit this mould are considered troublemakers who need to be discredited or, even better, removed from council altogether.

With this in mind, Mr Abbott no doubt thought that he was doing his bit.

The council’s chief executive Bruce Anson knows a lot about the potential problems of attacking councillors behind pseudonyms when he was scrutinised – and cleared – of any involvement in a series of letters to the newspaper written by his son under the pseudonym of Wilma Wright.

These letters, written over a period of four years, included personal attacks on Crs Sycopoulis, Hulin and then-councillor Jennifer Lowe during the 2012 election campaign.

Given this recent history, I would have expected Mr Anson to come down heavily on a senior staff member who has been exposed for such extraordinary and unprofessional behaviour.

Instead, Mr Anson has backed Mr Abbott to the hilt.

bruce anson abc
Despite the revelations, council’s chief executive officer Bruce Anson has thrown his full support behind Mr Abbott. Image: ABC Radio.

In his statement to the paper, Mr Anson said while “staff” should not engage in political debate online, he stood by “the excellent work” Mr Abbott had done at Flagstaff Hill and that he would  “be heavily involved” in the upgrade of the site.

Indeed Mr Anson even feels sorry for Mr Abbott: “It’s always a challenge, when you work as a public servant, to weather the criticism that comes with the job.” (I am sure the people who Mr Abbott has attacked would agree).

So Mr Abbott is going nowhere and will suffer no professional consequences for his actions.

I am trying to imagine the CEO’s response if Mr Abbott’s anonymous, public criticisms were aimed at Mayor Michael Neoh or, indeed, himself?

Would it be considered okay to continue in your position if you publicly criticised the two top civic officials you worked for?

Or what if Mr Abbott had used his anonymous comments to undermine the two women councillors, Crs Gaston and Ermacora? Would he (quite rightly) be taken to task then?

This should not be about individuals, but standards. Unfortunately what we have seen unfold today indicates that our local council has a long way to go in not only setting the highest standards for its staff, but enforcing them.

Note: It was Cr Brian Kelson who exposed the extent of the problems with the collection management system at Flagstaff Hill that has since revealed more than 130 missing artefacts, damage to Loch Ard relics and inadequate to non-existent record keeping. You can read our two earlier pieces on this issue here and here.

12 thoughts on “Abbott actions reveal toxic culture in council”

  1. Congratulations on your article. It is time someone was honest enough to publicly reveal their thoughts, not just personal, but a considered ethical opinion, about the type of issues faced in Warrnambool not only now but for some years past.

  2. I actually really hate that people are able to post comments that are ‘anonymous’ or using pseudonyms – I think if you want to say something then you should be prepared to put your real name to it. We can do that in Warrnambool, Australia where we have freedom of expression! I reckon there’s a lot of people like me – who feel a sense of despair that our council and political culture is so often bitter and negative and personal. The bureaucracy and councillors and politicians have shared responsibility for that culture. Nobody’s perfect – we have to try and find ways to get along, listen to each other and find the common ground – and to keep some perspective – we live in a world where we face huge challenges so we really don’t want to get stuck in stuff that just doesn’t matter that much.

    1. This is a great point, Julie, and there is a whole debate around whether people should be able to comment anonymously. At Bluestone, we insist that comments come from a valid email address and, if it is a controversial issue, that there is solid reason for them not being able to use their own name (for example, whistleblowing). We have had our share of individuals who have set up email accounts in false names in an effort to push an agenda or to criticise Bluestone because they see us as a competitor, but they have been flushed out. You are also right about the highly personal and bitter attacks that have become almost normalised in our council: this is precisely the culture we are talking about. How do we fix it? I would argue that it takes strong and inspiring leadership from those in a position to make that change.

  3. They have forgotten that they represent the ratepayers and residents of Warrnambool: keep up the great work Brian, Peter and Peter S and keep the ——– honest !! (edited to avoid any legal issues.)

  4. Brilliant exposure of the scurrilous behaviour of senior Warrnambool Council executives. I’m very disappointed to learn of it and am confident that my late grandfather and former Warrnambool Mayor, Harry McGennan, would be rolling in his grave with fury and anguish. Elected leaders and paid executives should be above rapproach and conduct themselves with exemplary behaviour.

  5. I have heard that people who have donated valuable family items to Flagstaff Hill with the simple request of having their family’s generosity recognised with a small plaque or inscription, have returned to find no recognition at all. (edited for legal reasons)

  6. At first I am in absolute shock and disbelief that Mr Abbott has not been reprimanded for this behaviour! Then I realise…I live in the City of Warrnambool, my beautiful, idyllic home, where we are run by a very small group of people who do not appear to have the community or the town in their best interests. Their own agendas have become of utmost importance, so of course, I slowly realise that this news is not shocking…it is typical and expected. And that makes me feel incredibly sad.
    We deserve so much more than this. And that is why I will always support the three good Councillor’s as they, little by little, expose what really goes on behind closed doors. I imagine the toll it takes on them and I am so very grateful that they have the fortitude and passion to keep plugging away for Warrnambool and it’s citizens. They will triumph in the end.
    And finally, I am so grateful for you Bluestone, because I truly believe that without you they would never be heard and the masses of Warrnambool would continue to be conditioned by other local media. Thank you!

  7. Congratulations Carol for exposing the underhanded cowardice of Peter Abbott in trying to undermine elected councillors. If Peter Abbott has genuine issues he should have the guts to write letters & sign his own name to them.
    Also what is being done about the missing & damaged artefacts at Flagstaff Hill (interesting how Mr. Abbott was anonymously attempting to undermine Cr. Kelson for flagging this issue up!!
    Cr. Hulin was a neighbour of mine years ago when I lived in Warrnambool – I mightn’t agree with everything he says, but his passion for Warrnambool issues is beyond reproach – he genuinely cares for Warrnambool. Residents should be glad to have such a forthright person on the council who does have the guts to stand up & ask questions.
    Once again Carol thank you for creating Bluestone otherwise most residents would never really know the truth of certain issues in Warrnambool.
    Even though i no longer live in Warrnambool it is where I grew up & will always have a special place in my heart & I’m still in touch with some very dear friends who live there.
    Sallyann Hall

  8. I remember the night the “Wilma Whale” emails had been revealed as coming from the son of the WCC CEO, there was (name removed, edit.) in the Hotel Warrnambool’s bar telling everyone there that Mr Anson would lose his job over the matter.

    Mr Abbott should lose his job over these cowardly and duplicitous attacks, taken together with the revelations of his flagrant mismanagement.

    You have hit the nail on the head, Carol. WCC is a fetid, toxic mess which needs to cleaned up and cleared out.

  9. I worked at Flagstaff Hill as a volunteer from 2009 to 2012, collating, cataloguing and photographing the FSH Collection. There is not a person in Australia, in fact the world that knows more about the collection than I do. I had never heard of the rumour of the missing Loch Ard ingots until it was mentioned by Cr Kelson in the media; when I left FSH I was in the process of collating them, I never had a final count.
    I have proof that ingots have moved from the Reginald M since my initial count in 2012; I was told that there were 3 ingots in the Port Fairy based whaleboat “Fletcher Jones” (not 6 as Peter Abbott states – but these could have been added later).
    I worked closely with the shipwright at FSH and he never mentioned to me that there were any Loch Ard lead pigs in the hold of the Rowitta when I was doing the 2012 count, and I have never heard of this so called “False Floor” in the Reginald M where ingots are hidden under.
    With Peter Abbott’s new revelation that there are 130 missing artefacts, there are in fact hundreds (yes, plural) more than that are “missing”.
    As for the copper plates from the Loch Ard – I was told that one was cut up by an employee of the council to make an award or presentation piece – I am not sure what it was used to make.
    There are not 7500 artefacts on the Victorian Collection as claimed, but only 6425 when I last looked – a week ago.
    I have notified the local paper of my qualifications at Flagstaff Hill and have refuted most of Mr Abbott’s claims, but the paper – even acknowledging my FSH credentials – refused to publish my comments on their web page.
    I finally would like to thank Bluestone for giving the people of Warrnambool a voice. Without it, all we would get is the biased whoopla, propaganda and ballyhoo.

    1. Thank you too Robin for your honesty and integrity. We need people like you to speak the truth. We need change.

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