Local Government Amendment (Improved Governance) Bill 2015

Legislative Assembly
17 September 2015
Second reading

Mr WYNNE (Minister for Planning) — I rise to make a contribution on behalf of the government to the debate on the Local Government Amendment (Improved Governance) Bill 2015. I note that I am joined at the table by the Minister for Local Government and that the previous Minister for Local Government, the member for Gippsland East, sits opposite me. The Minister for Local Government has put in place a sweeping set of reforms and a fantastic reform agenda through her ministerial statement, which was debated in the house during the last sitting week. I was pleased to make a contribution in support of this farsighted ministerial statement, which paints a clear picture of how the government sees its relationship with local government more generally. We have a respectful and professional relationship with local government that is in excellent shape under the leadership of the Minister for Local Government.

This bill goes to the heart of the question of governance. As the lead speaker for the opposition, the member for Box Hill, indicated, a bill was introduced into the Parliament last year that was the same as this bill in part but not in full. Whilst it echoes in part some aspects of the previous bill, I indicate to the house, as did the member for Box Hill, that the previous bill lapsed, and for the life of me I do not know why it did. As the former Minister for Local Government knows, I made a number of representations to him about bringing the bill on for debate. I indicated that we had some concerns with the bill, as he knew, but in the spirit with which I engaged with the former Minister for Local Government, in our respective roles — —

Mr T. Bull interjected.

Mr WYNNE — We were keen to have the bill brought on. I will not respond to the matters raised by my colleague on the other side of the table as to why the bill did not come on. I will simply say that is history and a time we all look back on with some reflection.

This bill is important because good governance is fundamental to the operation of local government. Many people freely and willingly give of their time to serve in local government in the 79 councils because their interests lie in the common good of their local communities, but inevitably there are some circumstances where the motivations and behaviours of some elected representatives are less than we, as elected representatives, would hope for.

In 2008 the previous Labor government, in which I had the honour of being the Minister for Local Government, sought to put in place a governance structure that addressed in a more systemic way some of the behaviours of local government, which in one circumstance unfortunately for me led to the sacking of a council. Also, under the coalition government the Wangaratta council was sacked when there was a systemic breakdown. That reform was about the establishment of a governance structure based not only on codes of conduct for councillors but also on a panel process run by the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV). Matters could be brought to the attention of an independent panel serviced by the MAV, which would hopefully nip in the bud certain unacceptable behaviours of councillors and, if necessary, provide the opportunity for appeal through the normal processes of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The reform also included a significant role for the secretary of the department.

In retrospect some of the more clunky aspects that we had put in place then have now been resolved by the Minister for Local Government, and I give absolute acknowledgement of that. We now have a much smoother process by which these issues can be addressed. It is important that we signal clearly and unambiguously as a Parliament that not only do we respect local government, we also expect the highest standards of behaviour from our elected representatives. That sits at the core of the initiatives that the minister has put in place here.

Where this bill departs from the previous bill is in three significant areas. In the previous bill, there was the ability for the mayor to exclude councillors from meetings. We were quite opposed to that. This is a red card, where in effect you could have a capricious use of this power by the mayor of the day, who, for whatever range of motivations or reasons, could in effect exclude a councillor from a meeting with no just cause. Frankly we felt that was a bridge too far and had the potential to be abused. We felt that if that was to occur it really pointed to a failure of the council to govern itself. Having to actually throw a person out and ban them from a council meeting speaks of a systemic breakdown in relationships. We felt that provision was just too difficult.

The second matter relates to the concept of a CEO employment matters committee. Whilst we understood the broad focus was to bring a level of professionalism into the selection of councillors, we spoke against this as well. We felt that whilst it is very common for selection agencies and employment agencies to develop a short list of candidates for the position of CEO, depending on where they sit on a selection panel there is the potential for a conflict between the elected representatives and the specialist person who comes into the selection process. We felt that due to the particular and, can I say, intimate relationship between the CEO and the councillors, it is important that there is a level of confidence and trust in the decision-making process of whatever that subcommittee of the council is that would select a CEO.

The third matter is in relation to an induction program for councillor conduct principles and taking the oath. We require councillors to commit to abide by the council code of conduct. There have been circumstances where that has in fact not been signed up to, and that is just simply not acceptable. If you are coming onto a council in 2016, you have got to understand that you are coming on with certain obligations and commitments that you make to the public realm. That of course means that you are going to sign up to the councillor code of conduct in order to join the council to the full extent.

There are two other matters, and hopefully the minister will have the opportunity to summarise. I will just quickly pick up on one of these things, the relationship between councillors and council staff, which was canvassed by the member for Box Hill. Obviously, as the member for Box Hill knows, the CEO is responsible for all matters pertaining to staff, and that is clearly articulated already in the Local Government Act 1989. In relation to councillors, clearly the governance bill we are debating here defines the difference between the two, and there are different provisions that attach to staff as opposed to elected representatives.

Unfortunately I cannot canvass the second matter, but the minister may well do so. It relates to allegations and evidence of misconduct and verification thereof. Hopefully the minister in her summary will pick up on those matters. I absolutely commend the Minister for Local Government for this excellent piece of work and her leadership in local government more generally.