LOCAL GOVERNMENT (RURAL CITY OF WANGARATTA) BILL 2013

I rise to make a contribution on the Local Government (Rural City of Wangaratta) Bill 2013. I commence by indicating to the house that I asked the Minister for Local Government, both formally and informally, to bring this bill on for debate.

I had some useful discussion with the Leader of the House as to the appetite of the government to bring this bill on, but I think it is clear that the government has decided, for a range of reasons, that once I have made my contribution today it will use its numbers to close down debate on this bill. That is a sad indictment of this government and of the minister at the table, the Minister for Local Government. I indicated to the minister in the spirit of goodwill that we were prepared to facilitate this bill and its passage through the Parliament — and the minister acknowledges that — because ultimately what this bill is about is that the minister has failed in her duty. She has failed in her duty as a minister —

And she has failed the ratepayers of the Rural City of Wangaratta. I note that the member for Benalla says, by interjection, ‘Well, what about Brimbank?’. I will tell you a little bit about Brimbank. As the minister rightly said in her second-reading speech, you do not make the decision to sack a council easily, but Brimbank needed to be sacked and Wangaratta needed to be sacked. The former Labor government brought in legislation in relation to Brimbank on 13 October 2009. We introduced and second read the bill on the same day and we debated it the next day. Why will the minister not debate this bill and get this sorry saga sorted out today? We should vote on this bill and draw a line in relation to Wangaratta Rural City Council, because all of the material that is available to us suggests that what has occurred at Wangaratta is a very sorry tale. The Wangaratta Rural City Council has been in governance for less than 12 months, but the independent reports on the goings-on of this council, virtually since it was elected, make you wonder why the minister did not act earlier. But I will come back to that.

From virtually the first few weeks of the inauguration of this new council last year problems started to arise. The first of those was the decision — I think a reluctant one — by a very promising young woman councillor, Lisa McInerney, not to continue in that role for reasons of bullying and inappropriate behaviour by councillor colleagues. What sort of message does that send to local government across this state? It was incumbent upon the Parliament and indeed the minister of the day to act, even at that very early stage, in relation to a very promising young woman councillor. The minister knows and I know how difficult it is to attract women councillors to serve in local government, which is disproportionately balanced in favour of men. What sort of message did that send to the ratepayers of Wangaratta? More importantly, what message did it send to the local government sector generally about the view we take regarding the representation of women in local government?

This young, promising councillor sought to put herself forward for public life and within a very few months she says, ‘I can’t deal with this bullying and inappropriate culture inherent in the Wangaratta Rural City Council and I have to resign’. What a failure, and what a message — —

Acting Speaker, I suggest that you counsel the member for Benalla over his completely inappropriate commentary and ask him to get a grip on himself. This is a serious matter. We are talking about a democratically elected council being dismissed by this government. I know this is not an easy decision to make. When I was the minister I had to make it, and this minister has had to make it.

We ought to treat these sorts of decisions with the respect that they deserve. I ask the member for Benalla to desist from his ridiculous commentary.

There was continuing commentary over an extended period from the local media in Wangaratta and in representations made to the opposition on behaviour at the Wangaratta Rural City Council. The behaviour include bullying, intimidation, inappropriate behaviour and suggestions of inappropriate actions by senior council staff in relation to alleged involvement in the procurement process relating to a major council project.

These are matters that have been canvassed in the report by Mr Peter Stephenson, the inspector of municipal administration, dated 20 August 2013. It is in that context I note that we have all been well aware of these issues. There have been serious concerns raised about the Rural City of Wangaratta and these have been covered in the local media. I give the minister credit for responding to that and taking an appropriate course of action that was available to her.

In the first instance, under the Local Government Act 1989 it is appropriate that the minister of the day put in place a monitoring regime to see if the council can right itself, to get itself back on track, to ensure good governance of the council. I have no complaint about the action the minister took initially in putting in place structures to at least attempt to get the council back on track. However, that clearly failed and failed systemically over a period of time. I will come back to why I think the minister did not choose to act earlier in relation to this council.

I want now to go specifically to a number of issues that have been raised in this damning report of the inspector of municipal administration. Mr Stephenson is a highly regarded person across local government generally and has provided a very fair response to the circumstances at the Rural City of Wangaratta. I refer specifically to the report that was tabled today. I thank the minister for tabling the reports. It is important that we have a transparent process underpinning why these decisions are made.

In what is basically a summary of the situation by the municipal inspector, the report states:

In my view, the elected council has failed — and continues to fail — to provide good governance.

 That is the fundamental test that underpins the Local Government Act and fundamentally underpins the responsibility that you have as minister to ensure good governance at the Rural City of Wangaratta and good governance more generally in local government. The report goes on:

This is primarily due to a serious breakdown in working relationships between councillors and between councillors and the administration; and an incapacity and unwillingness by councillors to accept that their collective behaviour needs to change. The conduct of a number of councillors is characterised by hostility and acrimonious behaviour; the denigration of staff and colleagues; and a lack of mutual respect and goodwill. The level of acrimony is such that the CEO and each member of the corporate management team … have been or are currently on leave for work-related conditions; one councillor who is alleged to be the victim of bullying behaviour by another councillor and is the subject of an accepted WorkCover claim has resigned her position —

that is obviously former councillor Lisa McInerney —

and the executive assistant to the CEO has also resigned after several periods of leave due to an accepted WorkCover claim.

What have we got here? We have got a young, promising female councillor who has had enough within three or four months and who has a WorkCover claim afoot against the council. At the time of the writing of this report we had the CEO and senior managers on sick leave. They are not on sick leave anymore; they are up and off — they have gone. I have been around local government for a while and I cannot think of another circumstance where you have seen not only councillors resign but the CEO and the full management team of the council leave the council. They have had enough; they have gone. We had the CEO on sick leave for weeks and weeks prior to his decision to leave the council and all of his senior management team have gone. They have had enough of this.

But Minister, despite all of that — and that happened some weeks ago, as you know — you sat there and you did not — —

The minister sat there and did not act. Again, we will come back to that. We will come back to what motivated the minister in this circumstance not to act. A councillor resigns, there is bullying behaviour, the CEO resigns, all the senior management team members resign and the government and the minister of the day sit there and do nothing. The report goes on:

Legal advice provided to the council suggested they adopt a series of resolutions which were designed to improve workplace safety.

That is the most serious allegation — that workplace safety was affected. There had been allegations about bullying and workplace safety, two cases of which have been substantiated by WorkCover and are currently afoot. The response from the council was:

To date, the council has refused to both accept and act on that advice.

For goodness sake! What more do you need to do? You have got WorkCover in there, you have got substantiated cases in there, but up to that date — 20 August — the council was refusing to act. What an extraordinary situation! And on we go. Mr Stephenson wrote, basically in summary of his findings:

The council has been given ample advice, time and opportunity to rectify its deficiencies.

A break in electoral representation will send a clear message that a continuing and serious failure to provide good governance is unacceptable. It should also initiate positive change towards restoring responsible elected representation to the city.

Accordingly, I recommend that you consider suspending and/or dismissing the councillors of the Rural City of Wangaratta Council and appointing an administrator or administrators until the next general election of councillors scheduled for the fourth Saturday in October 2016.

That report went to you, Minister, on 20 August, and there are so many aspects of this report which by any measure could only lead you to one conclusion — —

There is only one conclusion you could reach with this damning report: that the minister needed to act and needed to act decisively weeks ago to restore good governance, which is a fundamental underpinning of the Local Government Act, to the Rural City of Wangaratta and to send a message to local government more generally but particularly to the ratepayers of the rural city of Wangaratta. She failed to do so.

We go on to get a further review, which was undertaken by Mr Bill Scales, AO. As the minister indicated in her second-reading speech, Mr Scales is a person of substantial standing not only in public administration but also in the community more generally. I simply make no further comment on Mr Scales other than to say that he is a very wise choice of person to review the circumstances at the Rural City of Wangaratta. His report is dated 17 December. I would simply put to you, Minister, that I would have thought — —

I would simply state that, given the overwhelming evidence that was given to the minister by Mr Stephenson, the report by Mr Scales was, in our view, unnecessary. Nonetheless, let us go to Mr Scales’s report. He indicates as follows:

Based on reviewing these reports —

that were undertaken into the Rural City of Wangaratta —

and interviewing their authors, I have come to the conclusion that there are compelling reasons why the government should dismiss the Wangaratta Rural City Council as soon as this can practically be achieved.

This is because the reports and the interviews, when taken as a whole make the compelling case that —

and I will summarise —

the WRCC is so dysfunctional as to make the efficient and effective operation and management of the Rural City of Wangaratta (RCoW) unachievable under the existing council;

while it can be reasonably argued that the RCoW requires some level of restructuring and reform, the current WRCC is not capable of being able to sensibly and constructively implement such a process;

the current council has been instrumental in the decisions by the senior management team of the council to resign.

I think the minister would agree with me that a CEO, by any measure, is a person of substantial standing in the local government sector. It is my view, and I think generally the view of people across the local government sector, that the former CEO — I choose not to name him; we all know who he is — is a quality person who, I would submit, has essentially been hounded out of the place. He had been on sick leave for months, and his senior management team has gone with him, saying, ‘We’ve had enough of this. This toxic culture is too much. You have people on WorkCover claims, and this is just utterly unacceptable’. The report continues:

the past actions of the current council indicate that it is unlikely that it would be able and prepared to work with a management team other than one which was described by one interviewee as ‘compliant and obedient’.

Heavens above — compliant and obedient!

In this report we really have a light shined forensically upon the culture of the elected representatives at that council — if you are not compliant and obedient, you are out. No wonder the CEO and the senior management team said, ‘We’ve had enough of this. This is just ridiculous’.

Frankly it is an extraordinary overreach and a complete misunderstanding by these elected representatives of what their role is as elected representatives in local government. Their role is not about, as alleged in this report, intervening in planning matters or procurement matters — and those matters will presumably be subject to further investigation, because I understand that a couple of those matters have been referred to the IBAC for further consideration, as the report indicates. These elected representatives have completely misunderstood their role. Their role was to shape broad policy and the direction of the council.

What an extraordinary proposition to suggest that they were only interested in a senior management team which was ‘compliant and obedient’. That just tells you everything; it speaks volumes about what has been going on at that council. The report goes on:

the current council does not understand the financial and reputational damage it is imposing on the Wangaratta community by its dysfunctional behaviour. For example, the current cost of disputation within the council is conservatively estimated to be in excess of $1.6 million, with this estimate likely to increase. This has been estimated to be equivalent to around 4 per cent of the council’s rate revenue …

The report — from no more eminent person than Mr Scales himself — goes on:

councillors of the WRCC have by their behaviour adversely affected the health and safety of staff of the RCoW.

It is a shameful statement that we have a number of council employees already on WorkCover claims. The CEO and his senior management team said, ‘We’ve had enough of this. We’re out of here. No more — can’t cope with this anymore’. Prior to that the CEO was on extended leave. Prior to that a number of senior managers were on extended leave. Minister, you sat there — —

Sorry, Acting Speaker. The minister sat there and let it go on. Mr Scales’s report goes on:

the councillors at the WRCC are placing the ongoing health and safety of an increasing number of staff of the RCoW at risk. For example, the acting CEO has felt compelled to maintain an existing ban on staff meeting with councillors –

an existing ban on staff meeting with councillors —

other than the acting senior management team, because of his concern about the health and safety of staff if they were required to do so.

Goodness gracious! What is going on at this council? The report goes on:

the WRCC has been given significant support, advice and resources to assist it to address its dysfunctional behaviour, but none of the support or the advice provided has had any effect on its behaviour.

Minister, this is directly sheeted home to your interventions. I gave you credit earlier.

I gave the minister credit earlier that she sought to intervene earlier to try to sort this mess out, but it was very clear from early on that this council simply snubbed its nose at the minister and said, ‘We don’t care whatever you put in place. We’re just going to go merrily on’. Mr Scales’s report continues:

one councillor in particular — —

Ms Allan — Who is that?

Not named, interestingly enough. It continues:

one councillor in particular has shown no ability or willingness to understand the level of dysfunction within the council — —

Government members think this is funny.

The report continues:

… within the council, its effect on the community, nor his central and ongoing role in creating this level of dysfunction within the council.

It goes on:

a majority of the council is either unwilling or unable to discipline this particular councillor so as to allow the council to operate effectively and efficiently.

By any measure this is a damning report from Mr Stephenson, further supported by a review of reports and documents by Mr Scales. Both of these documents have been tabled in the Parliament.

Ms Beattie — It’s a rotten borough.

Indeed. My colleague says, ‘It’s a rotten borough’. You have to say by any measure this is a systemic failure of — —

 

This is a systemic failure of governance by the Rural City of Wangaratta, and it is a damning indictment of that council. I would submit that it is an indictment of this minister that she failed to act earlier to rectify this situation. You have to ask one fundamental question. The minister, by her own admission, received a number of updated reports, as is appropriate, from her inspector from the time of his appointment until he delivered his final damning report on 20 August. I believe that to be an accurate statement. You received that report on 20 August.

A month ago. You received that report a month ago.

The minister received that report a month ago. The very simple question is this: Minister, why did you not — —

Why did the minister not act upon this damning report by Mr Stephenson a month ago? What would have been going on at that time that may have influenced the minister to sit on this report — —

There was only one motivation for why this report was not released earlier and why the minister did not act upon it, and that was the federal election and the shenanigans that have gone on in the federal seat of Indi. The minister has failed in her duty as a minister.