The Local Government Act 1989 provides the framework for the establishment and operation of Victoria’s 79 Councils. It the overarching legislation for Council elections, powers and operations is about 500 pages long and has been amended numerous times. You virtually need to be a lawyer to understand and follow the existing Act.
The Government maintains it was a major election commitment to review the Act because it was outdated, flawed, and that the Local Government sector had sought reform for some time. A discussion paper was prepared in 2015 and following an extensive consultation process involving the local government, the community and review of 333 submissions on 6 December 2017 a Draft Bill was released for public comment.
Submissions closed on 16 March 2018 and Ratepayers Victoria made a submission. We indicated that while the Draft Bill is an improvement on the existing Act we consider that it requires substantial improvement before it is suitable for placing before Parliament.
The aim of the Government was the Act would tell people clearly what councils do, how the community can become involved in Councils and be able to better understand the value and role of a Council. However the Draft is still over 300 pages long and our contention is that it remains very difficult for the average person to understand and follow.
An objective of the review was to provide more autonomy for Councils and to cut unnecessary red tape by being less prescriptive. This involved removing prescriptive council decision-making rules and replacing these with high level principles requiring transparency and accountability.
While we agree with Councils being more outcome focused, we are concerned that less prescription will may make it more difficult to make Councils accountable. We are all aware how Councils use the current Act to avoid scrutiny and make it extremely difficult to get answers to probing questions.
Some examples of our concerns about the Act being less prescriptive are:
• Councils can develop their own Governance rules including how they conduct meetings and how they can delegate to committees,
• Council can determine the form and availability of meeting records,
• while the Minister may issue good practice guidelines it is not clear what the penalty is if a Council does not comply, and
• the Draft Act provides for the each Council to produce its own Complaints, Community Engagement and Public Transparency Policies. We do not agree with this requirement as we could have 79 Council with different policies.
Another of our concerns is that the proposed Bill does not address one of the community’s main concerns and that is addressing and satisfactorily resolving community complaints. There are 7 different organisations which deal with complaints or have an overview role of Councillor or Council staff behaviour.
Our suggestion to avoid confusion is that there should only be one point of contact for the community to deal with an unsatisfactory resolution of complaint to a Council and this should be to a Local Government Ombudsman (similar to the Ombudsman for Insurance, Energy and Water, Public Transport, Telecommunications, etc.). If the Local Government Ombudsman becomes aware that a complaint is a possible breach of the Act then the complaint should be referred to IBAC for further investigation. We suggested that the cost to the community for this change will be minimal because it is only a relocation of existing organisations and staff, and does not involve the introduction of a new organisation.
We noted that dealing with inappropriate Council behaviour is still overly complex and difficult to follow. Conflict-of-interest is still mentioned on 19 pages in the Draft Bill and that the various sections relating to the overall Councillor behaviour is unnecessarily protracted and run to well over 100 pages. This also seems to be excessive and overly complex when compared to the relatively few pages which are directed to dealing with staff behaviour.
The Draft Act provides for Minister will appoint a Local Government Advisory Committee comprising 5 Mayors. We have some concerns with the process of appointment and in our submission we called on the Minister to give ratepayers an equal opportunity and establish an equivalent committee comprised of representatives from ratepayer groups.
The Draft Bill proposes that Councils produce a 10 year Strategic Plan, a 4 year Council Plan and for the Mayor to report progress annually on the four year Council Plan. While we strongly support these requirements we believe that this in itself will not make a Council more accountable to the community for its performance.
It is proposed that Chief Executive Officers will be appointed for 5 years with the eligibility for re-appointment for a further 5 years. We oppose a 5 year term and suggest it should only be a maximum of 4 years to be consistent with the term of a Council.
At present there are 5 different models of Ward and Councillor representation. It is proposed that this be reduced to two models. There is no evidence or information provided to indicate that a reduction in electoral representation structures as suggested will, in the Government’s own words, “enhance democracy, and revitalise local democracy and diversity of representation”.
While our major concerns are outlined above there are some aspects of the Draft Bill we support (subject to suggested improvements which we detailed in our submission) and these include:
• deliberative community engagement,
• greater transparency,
• continuation of capping of rates,
• greater Ministerial oversight of Councils,
• Council to establish an Audit and Risk Committee with greater powers,
• Councils to have a gift policy, and
• Mayors to be continue to be appointed for only one year.
Overall our submission amounted to a total of about 60 pages and we commented on about 100 clauses and as our deputy president has pointed out, we only have one opportunity for a new Act to be right as it will be many years before it is will be reviewed again.
Dr. Alan Nelsen