Local Government Amendment (Governance and Integrity) Bill 2024

28 May 2024

I rise to speak to the Local Government Amendment (Governance and Integrity) Bill 2024. It has been a great contribution from many members today, and I have enjoyed listening to that, and I will speak a little bit about my experiences as well and this bill.

This bill does aim to enhance accountability, councillor conduct and governance in the local government sector, and we know – many have spoken about it today – that effective government is essential for councils to make good decisions and provide the services that their communities need. It has been raised that since our last council elections in 2020 we have seen a notable rise in governance issues. Interventions have been needed with numerous councils and 11 councils have required municipal monitors, a significant increase from just four in the last term. This was really to ensure that proper governance. One council was even dismissed following a commissioned inquiry and another one suspended.

In the Geelong region we are no strangers to administrators and monitors, unfortunately, and I will speak a little bit later about that. During this period the IBAC Operation Sandon Special Report was released. It examined various councils, and investigations highlighted there was some need for improvement in our local council governance. This bill is actually to address some of those needs and is a starting point.

When this government was elected in 2014, we made a commitment to amend the Local Government Act 1989, and it was an ambitious plan with some comprehensive reforms – for 30 years we had not had this sort of reform. Since then we have seen how legislation has reshaped that sector. We have highlighted the importance of long-term planning; increased council and councillors’ accountability, with a clearer standard of behaviour; and modernised the election process and transparency around council decisions and better financial management. However, some of the act’s reforms highlighted that we still have some further work to do, and so this is another part of reforming in respect to cultural governance and accountability.

This bill is aiming at strengthening that council leadership – the capabilities of our councillors and mayors and deputy mayors – and will do that by developing a model councillor code of conduct and provisions for mandatory regulatory training for mayors and deputy mayors and extending the maximum period of suspension from one month to three months, which an arbiter may direct following a finding of misconduct. If we do not address these issues, these issues can obviously undermine public trust in the sector. They hinder decision-making, they impede the delivery of essential services and they cause what I would probably call a paralysis of council from good governance – which, interestingly, is raised by constituents to me directly on a regular basis. The lack of trust in our councils in my communities is raised with me in conversation, and constituents will also come to me in official correspondence to the office for follow-up or for assistance. They raise issues around decision-making, lack of expertise and engagement and I suppose the minimal or lack of communication that is felt by the community from the council.

I have made a deep commitment, having this role in this place, to having the community be part of the decision-making process and having a really high level of engagement in the community on state issues.

I want to work and have demonstrated working collaboratively with the community to get the best outcomes with them. I want to work with all stakeholders as well to ensure that projects are delivered in a timely manner. I have openly discussed issues with the two councils that I have in my electorate, which are the City of Greater Geelong and the Borough of Queenscliffe. I have spoken to them openly about having a really respectful and collaborative relationship, one that can deliver really great outcomes for our communities. That is what I am interested in doing. I have regular catch-ups and meetings with the mayors and the CEOs of both the council and the borough. I keep communication open with them, and we discuss many concerns that come our way.

We have, though, many state projects in the Bellarine that are either jointly funded or fully funded by the state government where we need to work closely with our local councils. We are delivering so much on the Bellarine. I just want to highlight a few of those. The Drysdale sports precinct, stage 2; St Leonards cricket nets and skate park; Leopold Tennis Club redevelopment; and Portarlington Recreation Reserve. There are many projects that we need as a state government to work closely with our councils on and have trust that the councils are able to deliver, because they are primarily delivered by local councils. Yet historically, even before my time in this place, the trust particularly with the City of Greater Geelong had completely dwindled. In fact the minister at the time, who was amending the City of Greater Geelong Act 1993, stated that:

In April 2016, the previous council was dismissed by the Parliament of Victoria in response to the findings and recommendations of the independent commission of inquiry … The commission of inquiry concluded that the council had failed to provide good government to the people of Greater Geelong, the leadership of the council was dysfunctional and riven by conflict and there was a deep-seated culture of bullying within the council and its administration. The commission also found a range of organisational failures had contributed to the breakdown of good governance at the council, including a failure by council to provide a safe workplace for its employees.

In January last year the now Minister for Local Government announced monitors for the City of Greater Geelong, and this decision was made in response to advice from both Local Government Victoria and the chief municipal inspector. The inspector had recommended the minister exercise her powers under the Local Government Act 2020 in relation to the employment of a CEO. This investigation focused on integrity and transparency. After their tender at the council, the monitor’s final report, which actually is publicly available, did outline some problems. We had some problems around budget, complaints between councillors, potential conflicts of interest and claims of harassment and bullying. I mean, it is simply not good enough, and the report shows that more needs to be done. Therefore we have added additional time whereby those monitors will now stay until the end of the year, till after the next local government elections for the City of Greater Geelong.

This bill is so important to addressing these types of concerns that have been raised, which the community rightly want action on. Residents and ratepayers deserve councils that represent their needs and their aspirations and councils that deliver on their responsibilities. We know councils play a vital role in our communities across various services, and it is imperative that they have a really positive and workable culture with their community. Going into the election later this year, I really want to see community-minded candidates put up their hand so that they are able, if elected, to go into a workplace that is respectful, professional, accountable and supportive, and this training will be able to assist them in that.

In conclusion, I think I have highlighted really the importance that councillors have and their role in their communities as elected representatives.

Their decision-making, their behaviour, impact ratepayers and their communities in their everyday lives. Councils – and borough, in my instance – play a crucial role in providing those essential services and representing the community’s interests. Factors that influence that trust – such as transparency, responsiveness, community engagement and effectiveness of delivery – are all important, and the behaviours particularly of our mayors and councillors as elected leaders do really go to the heart of whether the community has trust in the councils’ abilities. While there are challenges – we understand that – this bill and our ongoing efforts as a government to improve these aspects will only help the trust in the community in local government. I commend this bill to the house.