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Local Government Bill 2019

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran): I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the Local Government Bill 2019, which incorporates proposed legislation from the previous Parliament for modernisation of the Local Government Act 1989. I acknowledge that those changes were subject to extensive consultation and actually did provide for some really good improvements to local government. The key elements there are the structure and constitution of councils, the election of councillors and appointment of council administration, the role of council, the principles and other matters as to how they actually perform their role, integrated strategic planning and financial management and the standards of conduct expected of councillors and council officials to support the required standards of integrity and oversight, with enforcement mechanisms to give effect to those standards. Earlier this year the Minister for Local Government proposed six additional reform areas which were also subject to a short consultation period.

Four of those reforms have made it to this bill: single-member wards, and I will have to disagree with the member for Mordialloc on what that will mean for the future of councils—I will get to that in a bit; opting in to the voting role for non-resident voters, unfortunately except for the City of Melbourne. I will also address some of the issues with City of Melbourne voting and enrolment, mandatory candidate training and mandatory induction training and code of conduct regulations with legislated arbitration processes for breaches, which are managed by the principal councillor conduct registrar.

Two of the reforms have now been abandoned, or effectively seem to have been abandoned. One is the community-initiated commission of inquiry process. I will leave that there, but inexplicably, incredibly, donations reform has been abandoned. It was proposed in the middle of the year and now abandoned in relation to this bill. Really, it is extraordinarily bad timing that this would occur at the same time as the IBAC hearings into Casey City Council, but this really reinforces what we have been saying—what the Greens have been saying—for years. We do need donations reform extended to local governments, in particular the banning of political donations by property developers, which is a clear conflict of interest and creates all sorts of problems at councils, like what we are seeing at IBAC in regard to other issues that have cropped up over the years.

But just before I get onto that, I do want to talk about local government. The Greens are very strong supporters of local government. They are really such an important tier of government. In fact even the Victorian constitution itself recognises that it: … is a distinct and essential tier of government consisting of democratically elected Councils having the functions and powers that the Parliament considers are necessary to ensure the peace, order and good government of each municipal district. So it is in the constitution.

Look, I appreciate the words of the member for Mordialloc in terms of the relationship he has with his council, but it has felt at times that councils have been seen by the government as I guess a problem to be solved or a problem to be managed rather than partners to work with. Local councils are delivering so much for their local communities: thousands of maternal and child health consultations, hours of home assistance and respite care, hundreds of thousands of immunisations, hundreds of thousands of roads being maintained and so many libraries and sporting facilities being managed. They really play an important role. It is a shame that often you only hear in the media, on 3AW, I guess a theme quite often of council bashing. I really reflect also on my relatively short time on the Stonnington council of two years. What I took away from that time on Stonnington council was the importance of a diverse council.

It was a politically very diverse council; there was no majority. I think that led to it being a really cohesive council. There were no factions, no majorities or anything like that, so what we had were a lot of councillors—of course there were disagreements at times—pulling in the same direction and really working towards what were some really big initiatives that we had at Stonnington council. I just look back and I think about what is coming up on 1 December, very shortly, for example: the opening of Prahran Square, a massive new public space within Stonnington. I recall that that was something that had been sitting within Stonnington as something that might be wanted to be done, and I remember in my time on council that councillors all agreed that that was something that should start 'now’ and we started that process. It is really fantastic to see that come to fruition. Getting more open space is something that is incredibly important, and there is a really strong open‑space strategy to increase open space in Stonnington, get Chapel Street upgraded and have a master plan.

But there is also even advocacy on issues—advocacy on better public transport, which I know Stonnington is now very strong on. It was really disappointing that when Stonnington advocated very strongly for a metro connection at South Yarra station the then Minister for Public Transport was bagging out that it was only a Toorak‑centred council or something along those lines—terms really insulting to council, who were really just advocating for their own residents.

Actually I think the mayor happened to be a Labor member at the time. So that was really disappointing. In terms of what the member for Kew has raised, it is important for councils to advocate on issues that, whilst they might not be directly in charge of them, are important to their local community. That is democracy. Just look at pill testing. Both the Port Phillip council and the Melbourne City Council have come out in support of pill testing, because both of these municipalities have large festivals in their areas and they are concerned about the health and welfare of the people who attend those festivals. Similarly with marriage equality, councils were absolutely pivotal to bringing that momentum of support for marriage equality across the nation. This is really something important that councils do, advocating on behalf of their communities. That is democracy, and I think they should continue to do that. I know it has become some sort of bugbear for the Liberal Party that councils should happen to do that, but that is democracy and you have got to represent the people that have put you in there and your constituents. I just touch on what is missing from this bill: the lack of donations reform.

Again, it is inexplicable why we would have donations reform at a state level yet then have essentially a free‑for‑all at the local government level. Really when you have got issues in terms of conflict of interest, when you have got councillors making decisions on planning applications and, with that, potential donations from property developers, it is an out‑and‑out conflict of interest. Councils play such a strong role within the planning scene, both setting the planning rules and then adjudicating on planning applications. The idea that we would continue to have a system which allows political donations to continue in that is just inexplicable. On the base level, it is a clear conflict of interest. But even when that is declared, if you look at what happened I think several times in the previous term of the Melbourne City Council, you had councillors having to excuse themselves from decisions on planning matters—to the point where the council did not even have a quorum and could not actually make the decision; it had to go back to council. That is not democracy. So there are those issues and there are issues all the way to what we are seeing now at Casey council. It just seems inexplicable that that is not included in this bill. If you look at New South Wales, they have got bans on donations from property developers as well as from the gambling and tobacco industries, caps on donations, expenditure caps. It is just bizarre that that is not included in this bill. That will have a very negative effect on the conduct of our councillors. The other issue that we are concerned about is the introduction of standard single‑member wards.

The member for Mordialloc seemed to indicate that with this we would be better off because we would have clear lines of representation or what have you. But what I see is councils going back to the bad old days of parochialism, to the point of fault, back to the days of councils dominated by one group or another. I just look back to last term when we had the Geelong city council sacked by this Parliament. The government brought in an independent monitor, and what did they find? They wanted: Replacement of single councillor wards by multi‑councillor wards supported by mechanisms to ensure strategic, whole of municipality planning and delivery … They stated: The single ward Councillor heavily favours the role of the Councillor as the representative of that particular community. It places a singularly onerous burden because the only other Councillor technically— and this is because they had a directly elected mayor— with an electoral interest in that ward is the Mayor … The experience in other Councils is that multi‑councillor wards provide the opportunity for discussion and shared responsibilities between Councillors. Further: The Commission’s assessment is that the single ward councillor system has not served the city well. The Commission’s view is that there should be multi-councillor wards to share representative responsibilities. That is exactly what then happened. We introduced multimember wards for the Geelong city council—a council that this Parliament had sacked. So I would offer that the move to arbitrarily go to single‑member wards will actually have a negative impact on the conduct of councils.

Mr Newbury: Not for the Greens.

Mr HIBBINS: Actually, I will take up the issue, because it is being interjected that this is going to have a negative impact on the Greens. This has been bandied about. Perhaps for the Minister for Local Government this is a 'get the Greens’ reform. If that is the case, I would say that would most likely backfire spectacularly. Look at the last time a Labor government went against a Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) recommendation for voting reform. I can think of the reform of the upper house, which was originally proposed, in my understanding, to have less regions and more members, and that was changed to have more regions with less members and with boundaries changed as well. Yes, that would have made it difficult for the Greens to get in, which proportional representation generally favours. What happened then?

The Liberal Party had a majority in the upper house when the primary two-party preferred vote was 50 per cent each, in a proportionally elected house. One or two elections later you had the other party with a majority. If this is a politically motivated decision, I would advise that that would be the wrong approach from the government, which would backfire spectacularly. If you are looking to run, as has been flagged, Labor-endorsed candidates at a local government level, and if you are planning to be in government in the next term, I am just not sure that the electoral winds would favour Labor-branded candidates at the midpoint of a third term of a government. That is just my assessment, but really, the assessment of the VEC, the commission appointed to investigate Geelong City Council, is that communities are best served by multimember wards. In fact what we do see is that the facts actually stack up—that councils where you have multimember wards are more diverse, they have more women and they promote collaboration between councillors, and that is so important. I also pick up on the point from the member for Mordialloc that, 'Oh well, in some places you have got 30 candidates running for a spot’. Well, who is doing that? Which branches are putting up multiple dummy candidates to do that? That is not an issue with multimember wards; that is an issue with how you conduct your elections and how you run your campaigns—whether you are appointing dummy candidates to funnel votes in certain ways. So we oppose the move to single-member wards. It will mean that councils will go back to the bad old days of staunch parochialism, a 'What’s in it for my patch?’ approach from councillors, less diversity in councils and the increased likelihood that councils will be dominated by one party or one group. That is a recipe for disaster. If we go through with that, I will tell you what: it will not just be Geelong or the other councils that we have sacked; I reckon there will be a few more coming before Parliament if this reform goes through.

In my short time left available I want to go through a few other issues that we would also like to see in reforms to local government. I certainly would like to see, and the Greens have long pushed for, reform at the Melbourne City Council level. It has two votes for businesses; I think the worst example of this was the owner of the mobile phone tower who got a vote. It is a clear gerrymander. The residents of the City of Melbourne do not support it. It takes away the voice of residents, people who are keenly involved in their community, and certainly this government does need to look at reforms to voting for Melbourne City Council. I would also like to raise another issue that has come up recently, and that is the revenue that is raised from the current congestion levy on parking. Now, the state government rakes in about, on the latest figures, about $110 million in revenue from both council-owned and private car parks within the cities of Melbourne, Port Phillip, Darebin, Moreland and Yarra. Only a small percentage, I think around $7 million, goes back to Melbourne City Council for them to spend on transport infrastructure, which is generally footpaths and bike lanes and those sorts of things. The rest of it goes into general revenue. This money needs to be redistributed back to the City of Melbourne and back to Port Phillip, where almost $20 million is raised. That would be an absolute boon for the livability of local councils.

Finally, I would like to put on the table another reform, something that I have always thought would be a really good reform to start at the local government level, and that is lowering the voting age, giving young people—16- and 17-year-olds—the option or choice to vote. It has been bandied around various states and nationally for a long time, but what a really good level of government to start this reform in it would be. Young people are keenly engaged in their local communities. I think they are crying out for a bigger voice, a bigger say on democracy. What a great way to start it would be to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local government elections. I think often local council elections do not get the interest—and you see that with the turnout—that they should. It is such a critical part of election, and I think this would really spur greater involvement and greater interest in local governments.

So the Greens cannot support this bill in its current form. It is inexplicable that donations reform has been left out, particularly with what is happening in Casey, and with the single-member wards we would be back to the dark old days of parochialism, of single-party or single-group-dominated councils. That is not the direction we need to go in.

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