Councillors call to review the City of Melbourne Act 2001
By Sean Car
Cr Jackie Watts has led a unanimous push by City of Melbourne councillors calling on new Minister for Local Government Shaun Leane to undertake a review of the City of Melbourne Act 2001.
Mr Leane was appointed to the vacated portfolio in June following the sacking of previous minister Adem Somyurek following branch stacking allegations aired on 60 Minutes. The scandal followed the passing of a new Local Government Act 2020, however, not all of the reforms applied to the City of Melbourne, which has its own Act that Cr Watts noted had not been reviewed since its introduction.
Her motion, which went before councillors at the Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting on July 21, called on the state government to commit to a review of the Act ahead of the 2024 elections, which also reconsidered representation of First Nations people.
“This is an opportunistic motion, we have a new Minister for Local Government and I’m seeking the support of my colleagues to draw to his attention that the review of the City of Melbourne Act is long overdue,” Cr Watts said.
“Nothing has been done to address the gerrymander that exists in our local government for this municipality. This matter is very dear to my heart. I have been campaigning for electoral reform in this city for a very long time.”
Cr Watts’s final motion unanimously supported by councillors also called for the implementation of a number of interim measures in time for the forthcoming council elections in October, including:
The disclosure of any donation and/or in-kind gift within three business days of receipt;
Capping donations at not more than $4000 from any one person or organisation within any 12-month period; and
Prohibit taking donations from persons who personally own or hold controlling interests in companies that actively engage in the property or gambling industries.
The original motion from Cr Watts had also included a restriction of donations to candidates to be from persons on the Victorian electoral roll, but was removed due to opposition from some councillors.
As local governments also brace for an election during COVID-19, the motion called for council officers to investigate options for the City of Melbourne or other entities to establish platforms for democratic debate that adhered to social distancing.
Cr Nicholas Reece said that other levels of government, both here in Australia and abroad, such as South Korea and Singapore, had successfully demonstrated democratic participation during both debates and elections on virtual platforms.
“In Singapore thousands turned out – wouldn’t that be wonderful to see here,” Cr Reece said.
Cr Leppert welcomed the calls for a review, stating that the age of state governments “stonewalling” the issue was over.
“We are lagging behind other states. It’s absurd how much our system can be influenced by donations from certain sources,” Cr Leppert said.
“The current makeup of the City of Melbourne [electoral] roll, which, excuse my gratuitous aside, enfranchises wealth to an extraordinary degree, results in the most male electoral roll in the country, is 61 per cent non-residential and gives every non-residential entitlement two votes to every residents’ one.”
“Even if you think that’s fine, hot tip, I don’t, there are still things you need to review to ensure the system is working adequately and when you consider that MICM alone gets 1700 ballot papers sent to their head office and it is taken on trust that someone working that office will forward those ballot papers on to 1700 eligible voters in order to fill in those ballot papers and return them, that system could do with some improvement.”
“I’m not alleging that fraud has taken place, I’m suggesting that the system is prone to fraud.”
Under the current system, a resident of the City of Melbourne is granted one vote in local government elections, while businesses are entitled to two votes.
Councillors lamented the fact that a business, which might rent as little as a desk within the municipality, were entitled to greater participation, as well as the opportunity to run in elections, than local residents.
Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood said that he hoped that the issue would be addressed in the review.
“As a ratepayer, as someone who lives in the municipality and has a business in the municipality I must say I would very much support the day when a desk doesn’t qualify you to be elected in the City of Melbourne,” he said.
“I think to have some sort of ownership and some sort of relationship to the city in which you’re making decisions for on behalf of so many people I think is a very important thing and I think if that gets picked up as part of this review then all power to you Cr Watts.”
That issue also exposed what Cr Nicholas Frances Gilley described as the City of Melbourne Act’s lack of meaningful acknowledgement of traditional land ownership, which too was addressed as part of Cr Watt’s motion.
“I think what is interesting is that we haven’t included traditional owners with the opportunity to have that vote and yet, we do recognise them as traditional land owners, but we give two votes to people who are absolutely not residents,” he said.
“I think both ministers for Aboriginal Affairs and Local Government have an opportunity to answer the point of debate around ‘Black Lives Matter’,” he said.
“We know that residents matter because they get a vote, we know people who own property who may have never even been to Melbourne can vote, we know businesses – even with one desk – can vote, but yet, traditional owners who have been custodians of this land for 60,000 years haven’t had that vote.”
The matter was followed up at the July 28 council meeting, where Cr Watts moved a recommendation for Lord Mayor Sally Capp to formally write to Minister Leane to commit to the review.
Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA) president Tony Penna supported the move to ban donations from property developers.
“On numerous occasions, we have been unable to have our say at FMC meetings owing to loss of quorum from conflicted councillors. Considering the significant and ongoing development in Southbank it is a travesty to our community when we are not able to be part of the discussion and decision- making process,” he said.
The July 28 meeting also saw councillors approve the first raft of new obligations placed on the council under the new Local Government Act 2020. These included the adoption of a new council expenses policy, as well as the establishment of a new audit and risk committee.
By September 1, the council is also required to adopt a new transparency policy, as well as a range of governance rules relating to the conduct of council meetings and delegated committees, meeting records, election period policy and procedures for the disclosure of conflicts of interest.
The community is invited to have its say on the new policies until August 1 via Participate Melbourne. •
Have your say: participate.melbourne.vic.gov.au/new-act-local-government