SPEAKING ON A BILL | LOCAL GOVERNMENT BILL 2019
Mr Melhem: I also rise to speak on the Local Government Bill 2019, and I am going to be very brief. It is late on Thursday and I believe that we will come back and spend more time talking about this bill in the next sitting week. I just want to take the opportunity to basically summarise what this bill is designed to do. A significant amount of time has been spent in consultation to review the act. The Local Government Act 1989 had not been reviewed for many, many years, and the last time a local government bill was put into Parliament was when we had over 200 councils in local government and now we are down to 79. A lot of water has gone under the bridge, so it is very timely to actually have a bill before Parliament. We tried to do that in the last Parliament but unfortunately we were not able to do so.
There are some key reform areas as part of this bill. One is to move to a single consistent representative model with single-member wards as the default and to limit the option to have unsubdivided municipal districts only to certain councils or types of councils as determined by the minister. That has probably answered Mr Davis’s question where he raised concerns in relation to certain regional councils. The flexibility is there.
All councils will have a CEO remuneration policy which is consistent with the Victorian Public Sector Commission’s principles in its policy on executive remuneration for public entities in the broader public sector. Mayor, deputy mayor and councillor allowances will be set by the Victorian Independent Remuneration Tribunal, which is a welcome development, instead of them setting their own pay and allowances.
Also the bill defines ‘complaint’ and requires each council to have a complaints policy relating to operational delivery that defines its approach and includes an independent review mechanism. That is a welcome development as well.
Mandatory councillor standards of conduct are to be prescribed through a uniform code of conduct. A breach of this code will be subject to independent arbitration and can result in a suspension for up to one month. A councillor will no longer be qualified to be a councillor if they are the subject of two or more findings of serious misconduct. The bill requires all candidates to complete mandatory training prior to nomination and also requires councillors to complete a councillor induction program within six months of being elected.
Now, that is very important in light of what has happened and what we are faced with the Casey council and the investigation currently being undertaken by IBAC. The bill is already addressing some of these issues. I am sure when the IBAC report comes out there will be recommendations coming out of that, and I think there will be an opportunity then for the minister to probably come back to the house and make further amendments to give effect to whatever comes out of the IBAC investigation.
The other issue that has been raised was in relation to the donation laws, and the government has already flagged its intention to actually align the council donation laws with what we did with the state elections. I think that is a good thing, and that could possibly take place as part of the review when the IBAC investigations or hearings are concluded and the report is handed down.
Now, as a further development of this bill, councils will now have to work closely with their communities in developing the plans and policies that guide their activities and spending priorities through deliberative community engagement processes. That will give more Victorians more opportunities between elections to have meaningful input into their councils. Residents and ratepayers who raise complaints will have their issues dealt with by an independent reviewer, which I talked about earlier.
Councils will have to be more transparent about their business, only closing meetings and deeming information as confidential in limited circumstances. That is basically to give ratepayers the opportunity to be able to question the CEOs of councils, councillors and mayors about their business and about certain decisions. At the same time, councillors and CEOs should be able to run their business. It is the same thing with freedom of information; what currently applies to state governments and parliaments—the same rules will apply. You have got to have safeguards and checks and balances in place, but I think overall the bill will introduce some significant changes which are long overdue. Obviously not everyone is going to be pleased and not everyone is going to be happy. Mr Davis himself is saying that while he is happy to support the bill, he has got some of his own amendments to put in place, but time will tell when we get into the committee stage.
I understand it might not be perfect, but we have got to start somewhere. It has been an ongoing process for a significant period of time, but it is a good start to reform the local government sector. If we need to have a further review down the track, I am sure the minister will come back to this house to make sure that we do so. With those words, I look forward to the committee stage. I am sure that the minister will be able to address some of the concerns that Mr Davis and other members have raised, and we will make sure that we can answer those questions. I think it is a good bill, it is a good starting point and the government has already flagged further changes that will be coming back to this place after the IBAC investigation. I hope members will support the bill.