Small words such as ‘may’ and ‘will’ have been carefully used in the Local Government Act 2020 to give Council staff more rights than ratepayers.
Financial relief for ratepayers was so irrelevant when the new Local Government Act was debated in 2020, that the sections relating to hardship weren’t even re-written or discussed.
Job security for Council staff was so much more more important there’s a new section devoted to it and the CEO is forced to consult with staff, while allowed to ignore the residents that fund the wages.
The 1989 Local Government Act says that a person suffering financial hardship ..
“may apply to a Council for the waiver of the whole or part of any rate or charge or of any interest imposed for late payment.”
Note the word ‘may.’ This provides a loophole for Councils to refuse to provide information to residents to advise them that that waivers even exist. If the Act said ratepayers ‘can’ apply, then Councils would have a legal duty to provide information about waivers, so ratepayers had the ability to apply. The word ‘may’ means Councils don’t have to pro-actively provide information.
It’s a tricky concept, even for those of us who are native English speakers – because certain words such as ‘may and ‘can’ have different meanings in legislation.
The public servants who write legislation know this. They choose their words carefully.
So it's left to ratepayers to find out for themselves that they can apply for a waiver.
Councils in Victoria don’t have to tell ratepayers they can apply for a waiver. Many don’t. It’s not on the back of rate notices. It’s not in many Council Hardship Policies. It’s not on Council websites.
Ratepayers Victoria has been lobbying Local Government Minister Shaun Leane on the issue since Covid-19 first appeared in 2019 and still there has been no improvement in providing information about waivers, let alone actually granting any.
The Victorian Ombudsman initiated her own review into How Councils Manage Ratepayers in Hardship in 2020, and still there has been no improvement.
But, back to the Act. In the Local Government Act 2020, the CEO, who can legally ignore ratepayers, is forced to consult with staff. Section 46 outlining the Functions of the CEO says:
“4) For the purposes of subsection (3)(a), a Chief Executive Officer must—
(a) develop and maintain a workforce plan that—
(i) describes the organisational structure of the Council; and
(ii) specifies the projected staffing requirements for a period of at least 4 years; "
So staff who are funded by ratepayers, have more rights under the Local Government Act, than the ratepayers who are forced to pay rates.
Is this because the Local Government Act is written by public servants. And Council staff are public servants?
Is it because MPs are lazy and just vote the way they’re told to by their political party and don’t bother to think about the impact of the wording and clauses on real people?
Is it because the public sector staff have a union and ratepayers don’t?
It doesn’t matter why it happened. It’s wrong. But it can be easily fixed.
Just a few wording changes in legislation would take less than a month.
Local Government Minister Shaun Leane has the numbers to get it done quickly and easily before the next state election.
It's his choice.