Local Government Amendment (Improved Governance) Bill 2015

Mr J. BULL (Sunbury) — It gives me great pleasure to speak on the Local Government Amendment (Improved Governance) Bill 2015. I would like to start by commending the Minister for Local Government, who is presently in the house, for her passion and determination in seeing the bill introduced and her passion for a better standard of governance across the state. The government is getting on with it. The bill will improve standards of governance and the conduct of councillors in local governments across Victoria. There are currently 624 councillors across 79 municipalities in Victoria.

Local government plays a vital role in Victoria. We hear some people say that local government is really only good for roads, rates and rubbish. I am not one who shares this view; in fact, quite the contrary. Local government has a vital role in service delivery, support and community infrastructure right across this great state, and therefore local councillors have a vital role in shaping their communities and advocating on behalf of those they represent. Like all organisations, though, there are some who do not do the right thing, nor do they conduct themselves as they should as elected members of their community. Too often these behaviours are ignored, and in ignoring them they are, in essence, condoned. As was once said by Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing; in 2015 that is best changed to ‘when good people do nothing’ rather than just ‘men’.

My point is that councillors who behave poorly should be reprimanded. I certainly agree with the minister’s comment that misconduct among Victoria’s 624 councillors is thankfully rare, but when it does happen, it is an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction that could be more easily dealt with by responsive and robust conduct laws. This bill will ensure that councillors know and understand what is required of them. It will require councillors to adopt appropriate standards of behaviour from the outset of their terms of office. It will do so by requiring all persons newly elected to be councillors, including those who have previously been councillors, to read the councillor code of conduct and declare that they will abide by that code.

The government believes that councils should have the power to take responsibility for resolving conduct issues internally, so far as possible, by strengthening internal councillor codes of conduct. The bill does this in three ways. Firstly, councils will be required to review and adopt their codes within four months of an election, at a special meeting set aside for this purpose. Secondly, the bill requires councils to have internal resolution procedures within the codes that makes it clear to all councillors how allegations of breaches of the codes are to be handled. Thirdly, the bill provides that councils may impose sanctions where a finding of a breach of the code has been made following an internal resolution procedure. These are very important steps. They must be voted on by council and include requiring an apology, excluding a councillor from attending or chairing meetings and removing them from any role representing council on an external body. This is aimed at ensuring that councillors know the consequences of their actions in breaching the standards of behaviour that they as councillors have adopted.

I have reflected on the importance of local government within communities, and I think it can play a vital role in leadership within the community, and within many communities across the state local government does exactly this. I would like to discuss local government in my area in relation to clause 8 concerning conduct. As members know, the former government made commitments to separate the Sunbury community from Hume City Council. It has been a much-talked-about and somewhat divisive issue in my community. It should be noted that, despite four years in government, the Liberals failed to deliver on this promise. Only at the eleventh hour prior to last year’s election did the former government decide it was the right time to set in place a process for separation, leaving Labor to clean up the mess. The former government also failed to provide sufficient information on the effects of the split, specifically on rates and services.

What we must remember in these instances — and this goes to the heart of the bill — is that we require our councillors to uphold the standards that we expect of elected representatives, and this was certainly played out locally in this matter. Let us not forget, though, that the former government took a careless and reckless approach to this matter. On coming into government I heard from many residents and community groups about this matter. Many residents both in Sunbury and the wider community were wondering what the new council would look like and what rates and services would be provided, all questions the former government could not answer. Two weeks ago I tabled in this place a petition with over 7000 signatures calling for another vote, and today the Minister for Local Government has released the report from the transition auditors appointed to review the separation of Sunbury and Hume. This important review was required because the former government took a careless approach.

The report was compiled by Frank Vincent and John Watson, who, within the report, express concerns about the financial viability of a new Sunbury council. They advise that a separation would risk Sunbury residents facing significant rate increases, a reduction in services and significant delays to the delivery of much-needed community facilities. There is also advice that the terms of separation proposed were inappropriate and contained legal uncertainties, which is of great concern. These include a real risk that rates in a new Sunbury municipality will substantially increase for many years to come or, alternatively, the types and levels of service the new council will be able to deliver will be significantly impacted.

An annual rate rise of 14.2 per cent is required to maintain current services, and the $10 million investment in the Sunbury global learning centre has been delayed beyond the first 10 years. No information was provided in the ballot pack distributed by the Victorian Electoral Commission on the practical implications of the vote, which is extremely concerning. The auditors also found that arrangements made by the previous government were not equitable or appropriate to ensure continued delivery of services to Sunbury during the transition to a new council. During the consultation process there were 100 written submissions received, and I would like to thank everyone who provided valuable input on this important issue.

The Andrews government is committed to getting the best outcome for Sunbury residents. The former government did not share this concern but chose to march on regardless. The minister is now considering this report carefully, and I thank John Watson and Frank Vincent for compiling their comprehensive and highly detailed report. It involved wideranging consultation with the community through the submission process, interviews and a public forum.

It is important to reflect on what local governments can do for communities — not just roads, rates and rubbish. They can do so much more than that, including providing infrastructure and driving and assisting local government services, and we have seen many examples of that as we go forward. Like all members, I look forward to improved local governments and better service delivery from local government areas to communities across the state. I commend the bill to the house.