Local Government (Greater Geelong City Council) Bill 2016

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Local Government (Greater Geelong City Council) Bill 2016, a bill that will essentially sack the Greater Geelong City Council. Before I get into the details of the bill, I will say at the outset that I do think this process has been poorly handled. To recap the time line here, the first anyone other than the government was aware of this process was essentially a leak to the local newspaper.

We then had a round of phone calls to parties late last night. A briefing was provided earlier this morning, which essentially enabled the government to meet its requirements in the standing orders in order to bring on the second-reading debate immediately. Obviously it is a very serious matter to sack a council — I do not think anyone disagrees with that — but the time allocated to members to consider the report in full, to consider the bill and then to debate the bill simply has not been enough.

On the morning of a sitting of Parliament, MPs have a number matters to deal with, but the report was tabled at the same time as the Victorian Greens spokesperson on local government was in question time in the upper house. It is simply not the case that there has in any way been enough time to fully consider the report or the bill — to consider the allegations or the recommendations. Having read through what I have been able to of the report, I note that there are a number of serious findings, particularly in regard to bullying and the individual behaviour of councillors, but also in regard to the overall performance of the Greater Geelong City Council.

The Greens are passionate about local government, we are passionate about local democracy and we are certainly passionate about the right of local communities to have accountable representation. Broadly speaking, we believe that the approach of sacking a council, as has occurred in previous instances, most recently in Wangaratta and Brimbank councils, should be, I guess, an act of last resort. Certainly all alternatives should be considered before sacking a council. I note that the Minister for Local Government recently passed legislation that gives her further powers. The minister now has the power to stand down a councillor. I am just looking at the practice notes from that particular act, which state:

The minister has another key tool to prevent poor councillor behaviour seriously impacting on a council as a whole. The minister is empowered to recommend an order in council to stand down a councillor against whom a complaint of serious or gross misconduct is made …

Further to that, the minister also has the power to suspend a council. Another guidance note states:

The minister can recommend that an order in council be made to suspend all councillors of a council and appoint administrators.

That guidance note further goes on to say that:

The power to suspend a council has in the past only been used as a temporary measure while a bill to dismiss the council is brought to Parliament.

This was the case of the Brimbank City Council.

The direction we have been given by the government is that essentially we need to consider this report and consider this bill, and we are to have that work done within less than 24 hours. I have been advised that we are doing this because we need to give the Geelong community certainty. I put it to the government that the Geelong community would have a lot more certainty if the minister had actually taken some of these other steps, whether it be standing down the council or whether it be suspending the council altogether, as occurred in Brimbank. The suggestion that simply passing this bill through the lower house, and not through the upper house, will provide any sort of certainty, particularly given the numbers in the upper house, I think is certainly misplaced.

In our view, we do question why these other alternatives to sacking the council have not been put in place or have not been enacted. They certainly have not been enacted concurrently with this legislation to give the Parliament more time to consider the legislation and the report before it.

I will go into the details of this bill. According to the second-reading speech, the bill will implement the following recommendations of the commission:

1)     to dismiss the council and appoint administrators to perform the powers, functions and duties of the council until a new council is elected;

2)     to provide for the direct election of the position of deputy mayor to strengthen support to the directly elected mayor and enable a greater sharing of the workloads of office; and

3)     to provide for a representation review to be held prior to the next council election with a view to replacing the individual councillor ward electoral system with multicouncillor wards to share representative responsibilities.

I do note that the bill does not provide for another election until 2020, which would be in another four and half years. As has been mentioned by previous speakers, we have the issue being addressed of the sacking of the councillors, but there are also the questions: what is the best electoral arrangement for the City of Great Geelong, and when should the next election be held? I point out that the report's recommendations do not mention a time frame or the year 2020. The report does mention in regard to multicouncillor wards that they would strengthen council leadership, corporate behaviour and decision-making.