Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (15:09): I am pleased to rise to speak to the Local Government Bill 2019, having had many conversations in the last term about the Local Government Bill 2018. By all accounts, in 2019 and 2020, the 2018 bill won.
In fact most people who came to speak to me said, ‘I wish we could just have the old one’. However, as Mr Grimley said, so many people just want this to happen. They want to see some of these reforms, but every time they see a new iteration they feel that they have lost some of the positive reforms, that they have been removed or that some other change to the 1989 act has been put in place without any consultation.
The government was actually congratulated by many organisations for the consultation that took place under the 2018 bill. I am not seeing the same plaudits and bouquets being offered this time round. In fact it feels like there has been very little consultation, particularly considering the changes that have been made, and no-one really understands why those changes have been made.
It is a bill that is said to make councils more accountable to their communities and improve councillor standards. I think this is a very reasonable objective and something that obviously we all here support. We understand that local government has changed since 1989. It has changed considerably. We have gone from 210 small councils to now where we have got the 79 larger councils. Our populations have boomed.
Councils are now managing infrastructure and delivering services that were probably never contemplated when the 1989 piece of legislation was implemented. Councils are dealing with billions of dollars each year, which means that they must be accountable, so I think certainly the reforms in this bill are necessary. I am supportive of the themes that underpin this bill, which are around autonomy, community confidence, improved conduct, improved service delivery and strong local democracy. But I have to say I do not think this bill as it stands will achieve any of those objectives, honourable objectives that they are.
As will have many of you, we have heard comments from multiple councils, councillors, council officers, community groups, peak bodies and concerned citizens, and most of them—and I will make most of my comments about this—were directed at single-ward structures. We have already heard that the Victorian Electoral Commission opposed vehemently this single-ward structure. In fact they absolutely recommended that we have multiward structures.
Two-thirds of the local councils also want to see multiward structures. I do not even understand why we are changing this, except that it would be for some political advantage. I look at my ward in Yarra, which is a multimember ward, and I have two Independents and a Socialist. I find that having three representatives for me is actually really effective, and when I have attended actual community meetings just for my ward, I have found that having the variety of councillors there has been very positive to the voice of those constituents being heard.
In contrast, when we look at the first past the post of single-member wards—the winner takes all—we see something quite different. We see incumbency, we see that winner-takes-all approach. I can look at Boroondara, where all nine wards have Liberal Party members. That is not how the constituents of that council voted. Ninety-nine per cent of them did not vote for the Liberal Party councillors. However, that is what they have got. It is not proportional, and it is not representative.
I take Mr Hayes’s point that these are growing councils with growing levels of constituents but also growing levels of responsibility. As one of the people who wrote to me said, the councils are almost like a company director and they have got to be able to have a big view. Councils are looking at multibillion-dollar budgets these days, so maybe we do need to pay our councillors more—because it is a big job.
It is a part-time job, but it is not a small task and it is something that we need to respect and also probably compensate for to achieve the best representation that we can at this very important level of government.
Mr Ondarchie interjected.
Ms PATTEN: I would say that I would like to see my local government operating very well. I would like to see my local government operating to the best of its ability given, I would say, the very increased responsibilities that local government has. In fact even some of the increased responsibilities of local government will have as a result of this bill mean that we want the best.
That probably goes on to another point of the bill, which is around education, and I am very supportive of some training and education for people going in. I remember someone telling me at the last council election that they asked the candidates in their ward had they ever attended a local council meeting. None of them had actually attended a local council meeting.
So I think if we want to encourage greater democracy—the reason we sacked Casey council was that we said there was not enough democracy in Casey—if we want to see increased engagement with our community, if we want to see increased engagement by our community with our local government and by our local councillors, then I agree that training should be a component of people running for local government.
I am very supportive of that part of this legislation. It is interesting that the donation reform that was in the 2018 bill that was advocated for and supported—and that we saw changes to donation reform at the state level in this chamber—is not being adopted and is not being transferred on to local government. Again, everyone is scratching their head as to why that is not happening and why we are pushing forward with this bill prior to the IBAC report.
We have been considering this bill and I have been receiving submissions and representations about local government reform for at least two years. We are rushing this bill forward now for some again unknown reason, when everyone who has spoken to us, everyone who has made representations, has said, ‘Why is this happening now?’.
What we do not see in this bill that I think is a missed opportunity are ways for ratepayers and electors to have more say in how their councils operate. This was an opportunity to do this. This was an opportunity to set up systems. This was an opportunity to set up better ways for constituents in our community to advocate to their councils and for complaint handling to be improved. That does not occur in this bill. The simplified franchise, again, I think is a solution looking for a problem.
We never had any problem with ratepayers just being added to the electoral roll for the purposes of elections, but now we are saying, ‘No, they have to opt in; they have to actually fill in the form and do it themselves’. Again I am scratching my head as to why these changes are being made.
There are so many parts of this legislation that do not seem to be fixing anything because it was not broken in the first place. I understand that there are significant problems and that is largely due to the considerable growth of the budgets of local councils, which gives rise to corruption and gives rise to mismanagement.
I do commend the bill in that it is addressing some of those issues. But in so many other areas I think it is completely missing the point. I would just like to flag some of the amendments. Some have been circulated, some have not, and we are not certain what is going to happen. We have heard the government may have a tranche of house amendments, but we have not actually seen them yet.
Dr Cumming interjected.
Ms PATTEN: I look forward to Dr Cumming’s contribution. She may be able to enlighten us as to what the government is planning in its house amendments. For the purpose of the coalition amendments, I have to say it was very kind and generous of Mr Smith from the other place to visit us at our cross-party business meeting yesterday afternoon to speak to his amendments—to give us a bill briefing.
I would like to note that at no point did he provide us with a soft copy of those amendments. We were given effectively a draft page of amendments yesterday afternoon at 4.30, and it was said, ‘Here are the opposition’s amendments’. Again, really it was unclear as to what they wanted to achieve. In fact Mr Smith himself did not actually understand what one of the amendments on the page was, and he was going to get back to us about it. We are still waiting to hear from them. In fact the Greens distributed their amendments some time ago.
The Greens have been providing briefings on their amendments, and I would like to thank them for that. I am very minded to support the vast majority of those amendments and those proposals. They actually go back to the 2018 bill in a lot of ways; they go back to what we are hearing from the Victorian Local Governance Association, what we are hearing from the Municipal Association of Victoria, what we are hearing from the Victorian Electoral Commission, what we are hearing all of my local councils. That is what we are hearing.
I would also like to just mention—and I appreciate Mr Atkinson also speaking to this amendment from the Greens—encouraging 16- and 17-year-olds and for them to be allowed to vote in local government elections. I support this. I think this is a wonderful way to engage our young people in the political process.
We know that our young people are not engaged anymore. We know that our young people walk past this building and do not even know what it is. They do not understand the three levels of government. There is very little engagement amongst young people with our political system. In fact in 2017 the Electoral Matters Committee investigated this exact question.
Mr Somyurek interjected.
Ms PATTEN: I distinctly remember that the minister was on that committee at the time, and he agreed that political engagement amongst young people was declining and was failing us. By encouraging people to start getting involved, by encouraging people to take an interest in what is happening in their local area by getting involved in local government I think has great merit, and I will certainly be supporting this. I look forward to listening to the rest of the contributions.
I have enjoyed listening to all of the contributions today. I think it has been really interesting hearing from all of the different parties that largely we all want the same thing.
We want better run local government; we want better representation. I am just not sure that all the components of this bill are going to achieve that.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading speech 4/3/20
You can read further comments on the Bill here.