VCAT finds Elise Chapman guilty of misconduct

Sharon Kemp | Bendigo Weekly | 24-Mar-2017


FORMER City of Greater Bendigo councillor Elise Chapman was guilty of misconduct in giving voice to ugly and unjustified stereotyping of Muslims in Bendigo when she tweeted a picture depicting genital mutilation, according to a VCAT vice president.

In a 22-page finding handed down yesterday, judge Marilyn Harbison said Ms Chapman’s behaviour was the “very opposite” demanded of a councillor.

Judge Harbison reprimanded Ms Chapman, the only penalty available to her given the latter was no longer a councillor.

Her most brutal remarks relate to her finding that Ms Chapman breached the councillors’ code of conduct.

“The Bendigo code required Ms Chapman to treat all persons with respect having due regard to their legitimate beliefs, race, culture and opinions,” Judge Harbison said.

“I can think of no more gross example of violation of these principles than to suggest that those who would frequent a place of worship in Bendigo, or Bendigo residents who hold a particular religious belief, would mutilate young babies in a way she has represented in her tweet.

“In doing so, she has, whether wittingly or unwittingly, give voice to ugly and unjustified stereotyping of Muslims in the Bendigo community.

“There is even more force to this characterisation when the tweet is seen in its context.”

Judge Harbison said Ms Chapman was a vocal opponent of the mosque and a central figure in the debate.

“In many public utterances, she indicated her view that it was not just a planning issue but was in fact a debate about the religion of Islam – about which she had strong views,” Judge Harbison noted.

Ms Chapman’s tweet included a picture of five babies with bloodied genitals with the comment: “Oh we could have this here too? Would you like your fanny sliced off?”

Judge Harbison found Ms Chapman was bound by the City of Greater Bendigo councillors’ code of conduct despite not signing the code in place at the time of the tweet.

She rejected Ms Chapman’s defence that she sent the tweet as a private individual, not as a councillor, finding that she appeared to interact by tweet and email no differently in either role.

“When one reads the twitter exchange with E as a whole, it is clear that Chapman was making no distinction between her role as councillor and her private views,” Judge Harbison found.

“Her suggestion that she was doing so ‘in the privacy of her lounge room’ misunderstands the nature of twitter.

“As was submitted on behalf of the council, she was in fact tweeting in everyone else’s lounge room, or indeed in everyone else’s workplace.”

Judge Harbison also said Ms Chapman’s defence under the provisions of freedom of expression was overcome by the appropriate limitations of the councillors’ code of conduct “in order to protect human dignity, equality and freedom within the Bendigo community”.

In a written statement released late yesterday, Greater Bendigo mayor Margaret O’Rourke said council supported the VCAT findings against Ms Chapman and hoped the ruling concluded the matter.


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