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Reforms are a “backwards step”

10 Jul 2019

Reforms are a “backwards step” Image

Councillor for the City of Melbourne (CoM) Rohan Leppert has slammed the state government’s proposed changes to multi-member wards as part of its plans for a new Local Government Act.

It comes after Minister for Local Government Adem Somyurek announced on June 17 that the government was seeking the community’s feedback on six new reforms, which propose changes to areas including election donations and multi-member wards.

While the CoM isn’t impacted by all of the proposed changes due to having its own Act, Cr Leppert denounced many of the reforms as “controlling” and a “backwards step” for women and diversity in local government.

The six new proposed reforms (and their impacts on the City of Melbourne) include:

  • Simplifying and clarifying enrolments for voters in council elections. It is proposed to remove the requirement for the CoM to directly enrol property owners and corporation representatives whose primary residence is outside Australia. Those people will retain the right to apply for enrolment.
  • Introducing mandatory training for council election candidates and councillors. All new candidates at council elections will be required to undertake training in order to nominate. All elected councillors will be required to undertake induction training within six months of being elected.
  • Capping electoral campaign donations and gifts. Foreign electoral campaign donations will be banned at all councils. Campaign donations from a single donor to candidates and candidate groups will be capped at $4000. The threshold by which campaign donations and other gifts must be disclosed remains at $500 for the CoM.
  • Allowing for the dismissal of a councillor after a community-initiated commission of inquiry. If a Councillor Conduct Panel makes a finding of serious misconduct against a councillor twice in eight years, that councillor will be disqualified for four years. If a petition is received by more than 25 per cent of enrolled voters at a council calling for a Commission of Inquiry into a council, and the Commission subsequently makes a finding that a councillor has significantly caused/contributed to governance failures at the council, the councillor is disqualified for four years.
  • Defining standards of conduct. All councils must have Councillor Codes of Conduct which include standards of conduct prescribed in regulations. A legislated arbitration process will also be put in place to deal with allegations of councillor misconduct rather than councils developing their own processes.
  • Introducing a preference for single member wards. CoM is an unsubdivided municipality as specified in the City of Melbourne Act 2001 and it is not proposed to change this.

While CoM won’t be affected by the change to ward structures, other councils with multiple member wards would now be broken up into single member wards as a default, with a councillor dedicated to a single postcode, for example.

Mr Somyurek argued that the new laws would help councils be more accountable, democratic and responsive.

“These changes boost consultation and engagement between councils, residents, ratepayers and businesses, as well as providing for ongoing accountability,” he said.

The 2019 Bill builds on from the Local Government Bill 2018, which was the result of a three-year consultation with councils, communities and sector bodies and was informed by an expert panel.

The draft of the Act allowed for councils (other than the CoM) to be constituted in one of three ways: an un-subdivided district, multi-member wards of equal number of councillors or single-member wards.

“This extraordinarily controlling change to the local government electoral structures is the opposite of the government’s stated aim of returning control of councils to communities,” Cr Leppert said. “The consequence for community representation will be a massive backwards step.”

According to current data from the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC), 41.4 per cent of councillors in multi-member ward councils are women, compared to only 33.9 per cent in single-member wards.

Cr Leppert said a move to abandon multi-member wards would lead to an increase in disproportionate voting and less diversity.

“Proportional systems of voting produce more representative elected representation – it’s as simple as that,” Cr Leppert said.

“Why is this Labor government trying to eradicate proportional representative models and make it harder for women to be elected? Such sweeping change to local government needs to be subject to proper scrutiny, not just dropped on the sector as the new minister’s pet reform to game local elections.”

“Minister Somyurek’s track record on how he works with women is well known; he’s already lost the Premier’s confidence once before. Now he is pursuing measures that will worsen systemic discrimination against women in local government elections.”

“This bad policy, and Labor should do better. I’m surprised Cabinet let this fly.”

In a statement to CBD News, a City of Melbourne spokesperson said that council needed to wait and see the detail of the proposed Bill later this year before it could fully assess its implications for the city and councillors; if any.

“It’s not clear whether the Bill will incorporate City of Melbourne as we are also governed by a separate Act,” the spokesperson said.

“The City of Melbourne already has high standards of governance and several of the proposed reforms flagged by the state government – including training for councillors and defining standards of behaviour – are already in place.”

“We believe electoral campaign donation are a matter for individual councillors or candidates.”

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