• Tony Bosworth

Leading Hawkesbury Libs spat with community group over Facebook post – legal action threat

A Hawkesbury community group says freedom of speech is at risk after a leading Hawkesbury Liberal threatens legal and police action over a social media post.

As we move towards local council elections – Hawkesbury goes to the polls on December 4 – two leading Liberals have taken aim at community group Hawkesbury Matters (HM) over a post they put up on Tuesday, with one councillor threatening legal and police action today.

The post – which is still up today – focuses on the lead Liberal on the council ticket – and expected to be Federal candidate – Sarah Richards’ partner Matthew Bennett, and some of his business dealings in the property market.

It doesn’t suggest any wrong-doing on the part of Mr Bennett - who HM call a property developer (Ms Richards has previously told the Post her partner is a not a property developer, but rather a ‘property consultant’) - but may suggest a degree of opaque transparency.

Cllr Richards announced on the Hawkesbury Liberals’ Facebook page today that she is seeking legal advice and intended to visit the police over the HM post.

“I have briefed lawyers yesterday and I am going to the police today,” she said.

“Not only is it racist [the Hawkesbury Matters post] and defamatory, but the months of research involved shows a sad obsession and I will be looking into any options under the Fixated Persons Unit," she said.

The Fixated Persons Investigations Unit (FPIU) of the NSW Police was set-up in 2017 to monitor extremists and fixated persons who may not fall under Australia’s counter-terrorism laws but nonetheless pose a risk of serious violence.

Liberal councillors Richards and Conolly earlier this year surveying river bank damage

“The multiple posts over the last few months demonstrate this as a pattern of behaviour,” said the councillor. “Police take this level of harassment of public elected representatives very seriously.”

Cllr Richards’ Liberal colleague, Mayor Patrick Conolly, also rushed to her defence, posting on Facebook with an all-caps headline saying ‘calling out racism and personal attacks’.

Cllr Conolly labelled the group, a “new protest group setup [sic] to fight against Richmond Bridge”.

The $500m Richmond Bridge duplication and bypass was announced by Liberal politicians back in June, with Hawkesbury councillor Richards also fronting the media conference on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.

Hawkesbury Matters – set-up only a few months ago – says it's, “a community group working to grow and protect the Hawkesbury's future, heritage and environment”.

They are not against the bridge as such – and have other heritage and community interests but they do not believe the Green Route is the best route, though it’s the preferred route chosen by the government.

Hawkesbury Matters says on its Facebook page people should join them, "If you care about our town, our heritage, our environment and our community".

Cllr Conolly’s take on the HM post was that, “the allegation essentially is that her [Sarah Richards’] partner has business dealings with someone who has an Asian-sounding surname. They went into great detail about her partner's family and business and even photoshopped [sic] this

Hawkesbury Matters' main pic on Facebook

photo of Sarah to try and play to old racist fears”.

The picture, a close-up detail of which Cllr Conolly reposted on the Liberal Facebook page, shows a digitally altered picture of Cllr Richards supposedly wearing a Chinese dress.

“The calls of racism are an obvious attempt to deflect readers from the content of the article," a spokesperson for HM told the Post today.

"The image is satirical and we used a Chinese prop to illustrate that the Post Office is the registered business address of 3E Australia, a company which helps source furniture and homewares from China."

But Cllr Conolly reckons it is racist.

“When I commented to call out this racist behaviour and pointed out that family should be off-limits (and got a lot of support even from the followers of Hawkesbury Matters FB page) - they deleted my comment and blocked me from engaging!!,” said the Mayor.

“Blocking community leaders from being part of the conversation might lead people to the conclusion that the politics is more important than the bridge to the secret admins of the page,” he said.

“I’m not worried that Hawkesbury people will be persuaded by racism and personal attacks,” says the Mayor, “but that doesn't mean that Sarah should have to put up with it, just because she decided to put her hand up to represent her community on her local Council.”

But the Hawkesbury Matters spokesperson told the Post, “we should all be very concerned.

"When a group of politicians gang together to suppress free speech using the police to intimidate the public into silence, it is a very dangerous day for democracy in this country.

“The community has every right to raise legitimate and very important questions about their local politicians and also, the way public funds are being spent.

“Politicians in our society now operate in secret and we need organisations like ICAC and strong independent journalism to ensure they do what they are elected to do which is to act in the community’s interests.

“When the only route to transparency is a freedom of information application it means the default state in our society has become secrecy.”

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