by ALEC SMART
Julie Passas, Inner West Council’s controversial Liberal Party representative for Djarrawunang Ward (Ashfield), has caused another stir concerning her alleged hostility to homosexuality.
On 11 March the Inner West Courier published Ms Passas’ official apology to a gay neighbour, Daniel Comensoli, whom she vilified 26 months earlier in Nov 2017. The apology appeared in small print on page 86 of its 88-page weekly edition.
The apology itself is in the necessary legalese that the authority – the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal – demanded on 5 Aug 2019 when they found Cr Passas’ guilty of homosexual vilification under anti-discrimination laws, and again at her unsuccessful appeal on 2 Jan 2020. She was also ordered to compensate Comensoli $2500.
However, Passas’ addendum in the newspaper, a “Comment regarding the above apology”, is what has incited opprobrium among the LGBTQI+ community and beyond, because it reads more like a reluctant ‘sorry-not-sorry’ from a naughty child disciplined for worming their hand into a biscuit tin.
“The above apology is published by order of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) and in the format ordered by NCAT,” Ms Passas wrote. “Not to do so would place me in contempt of NCAT orders. I maintained in the proceedings that I had not made the comments alleged by Mr Comensoli and that my grievance at the display of the Rainbow Flag was not in respect of its message but because of the breach of the strata by law.
“Notwithstanding that the Tribunal found against me, I stand by my comments. I also continue to deny any vilifying conduct on my part. I have always been, and remain, a defender of individual freedoms and rights, and of respect for other persons, irrespective of gender, sexuality, religion, race and age.”
On 15 Nov 2017, Ms Passas, the then Deputy Mayor of Inner West Council, allegedly abused her gay neighbour, Daniel Comensoli, with a tirade of offensive comments after she saw a rainbow flag hanging on his balcony.
Liberal Councillor Passas, 71, a retired former cleaning business and coffee shop proprietor, was the secretary of the body corporate of the housing complex in which her and Comensoli resided, herself from 2013 (Comensoli has since left the premises).
Comensoli displayed the flag in celebration on the day the national plebiscite on legalisation of gay marriage – aka Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey – revealed the nationwide vote yielded a ‘Yes’ result. The survey returned 7,817,247 (61.6%) ‘Yes’ responses and 4,873,987 (38.4%) ‘No’ responses.
“After viewing the [same-sex] announcement at Prince Alfred Park with a friend,” Comesoli wrote on Nov 25 in a Facebook post 10 days after the altercation, “I went home and decided to fly a rainbow flag outside my apartment to celebrate what the LGBTI community had achieved.
“Soon before I left home to join the celebrations on Oxford Street, I was confronted outside my home by my neighbour Julie Passas, who also happens to be the Deputy Mayor of the Inner West Council. She demanded that I remove the flag because it was offensive to her culture and religion.
“After standing my ground and telling her that I would not take it down, Passas shouted for the whole apartment complex to hear that only “until [I] could breastfeed and have children”, should I be afforded the right to marry.”
As City Hub reported at the time, the allegations of Ms Passas’ homophobic abuse come a week after two ‘gay-friendly’ wall murals in Sydney’s inner-west were vandalized by Christian fundamentalists who opposed the outcome of the plebiscite allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Thereafter, Ms Passas pursued a long and determined argument to present Mr Comensoli as the source of their altercation, leading to her unsuccessful appeal against her conviction for vilification by the NCAT.
NCAT recorded: “She was easily inflamed when questioned about her conduct and stated in cross-examination that the concept of gay marriage was offensive to her, was offensive to her upbringing and religion, and that [Comensoli] ‘made the whole thing up because of a gay issue’, ‘turned it into a gay issue’ when ‘it was about strata’ and was ‘only continuing because of support for him from her political opponents’.”
The two NCAT judges hearing Passas’ appeal stated: “The manner in which the respondent made her demand was inappropriate and objectively likely to incite hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule of homosexual persons, and other LGBTQIA+ persons for whom the rainbow flag is an accepted symbol of identity, in an ordinary member of the general public.
“The tribunal found that an objective understanding of Passas’s statements inferred “that a person who can’t breastfeed or have children should not be afforded an equal right to marry the person of their choosing”.
It also found the statement “is objectively likely to rouse, stimulate, urge, stir up or animate hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule of homosexual men.”
After reading Passas’ comment under her official ‘apology’, Comensoli told City Hub, “Look, I just think it’s extremely disappointing, but not surprising. This was an opportunity for her to reflect upon her actions and apologise in good faith (despite the fact that she’s been ordered to by the tribunal).
“But her comments attached to the apology completely undermine the whole purpose of writing the apology in the first place. It’s just the same lies and denials of wrong doing. It’s shameful and unacceptable conduct from an individual who holds public office. It feels like a kick in the guts, and it shows her complete immaturity and inability to accept responsibility for her actions. They are not qualities one would deem fit for a councillor.
“I have no political agenda in relation to the whole thing. Just my personal response to what she’s done. I’m just trying to figure out whether it’s in contravention to the orders and in contempt of the tribunal.”
Inner West Council Mayor, Darcy Byrne, was the one responsible for granting the office of Deputy Mayor to Cr Passas after the 9 Sept 2017 Local Elections, in return for her support for his mayoral candidacy. The deal struck between Labour and the Liberal Party that put Councilor Passas in power, despite the Liberals being a minority party with 2 seats in the 15-seat Inner West Council, had the five Greens and two of the three Independents on the council fuming that they had been marginalized.
In Nov 2017 Independent Councillor Pauline Lockie, who lost the Inner West Mayoral election to Councillor Darcy Byrne by one vote, told City Hub, “I would be concerned about the suitability of any Councillor to continue to hold office if they were found to have subjected residents to abuse or harassment.”
Passas’ past: disruptive behaviour
Passas gained notoriety for years of contentious behaviour when she was a member of Ashfield Council, prior to its May 2016 forced amalgamation with Marrickville and Leichardt councils into the Inner West Council.
* Between 21 Feb 2013 and 26 May 2015, Councillor Passas breached several clauses of the Council’s Code of Conduct at a variety of Council meetings, including refusing to abide by the Mayor’s procedural rulings and being disruptive. This eventuated in three months disqualification from holding civic office.
* In Feb 2014, Ashfield Mayor Lucille McKenna ejected Councillor Passas twice from two separate Ashfield Council meetings, both of which she initially refused to leave, shouting from the public gallery. The Mayor
was then quoted in the Inner West Courier: “It’s extremely difficult to function with that level of yelling, continual interjecting, continual focus on herself rather than issues on hand, continual bringing up of issues that are not relevant or that have been resolved in a previous meeting (or) continually trying to interrogate the staff. The reason that we have to take action is that she just makes council meetings unbelievably testing and trying for everybody involved.”
* On 13 March 2015, Cr. Passas stuck masking tape over her mouth and stood outside the town’s Civic Centre with a placard proclaiming she was being ‘gagged’ by fellow councillors “to stop me asking questions on your [ratepayers] behalf.”
* On 24 March 2015, Cr Passas was formally censured by Ashfield Council for a breach of their Code Of Conduct and ordered to read an unqualified apology to a staff member, the council and the community for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, including the words: “I acknowledge that my behaviour constituted intimidation, harassment and verbal abuse and was a failure by me to treat that council staff member with respect.”
* On 21 April 2015, Cr Passas refused to read the written apology and began to read her own statement until she was evicted from the chambers for the third time that year. “They think I need anger management,” Cr. Passas addressed the councillors. “If I didn’t already have anger management they wouldn’t be here.”
City Hub’s previous reporting on Councillor Julie Passas and her former neighbour: