1 Mount Eliza Way – Not For Sale

Mornington MP, David Morris, has called on the Andrews Government to abandon the sale of 1 Mount Eliza Way, and to work with the local community to retain this important site in public ownership.

No. 1 Mount Eliza Way forms part of the gateway to the Mount Eliza Village. It is a 2600-square metre block, with an asking price of $2 million to $2.2 million.
Speaking in Parliament this week, Mr Morris said the impact of the government’s financial recklessness is becoming evident with the sale of assets, including this site, to prop up the budget.

“The issue is that the government is doing this with absolutely no warning.”

“This land has been a reserve for as long as anyone can remember, and in fact when I looked at the Landata map last night, it is identified as the Mount Eliza Way Reserve. It appears it was a road reserve purchase that is no longer required and is now being disposed of.”

“The recent report from the Environment and Planning Committee, made the point that requiring highest and best use, which is government policy, leads to loss of sites such as this—sites that have been used for passive recreation for decades if not significantly more. This one probably goes back to the 1960s, when the road was constructed.”

“This is the main gateway to Mount Eliza. It is an absolutely critical site. It will have a significant impact on the treescape if this proceeds and is developed.

Local Government Minister must act on flawed contracts process

Revelations from today’s report from the Victorian Ombudsman that a senior member of Melton City Council IT staff was able to direct over $1 million worth of work to one of his own companies are deeply disturbing and must be immediately acted upon by Labor’s Minister for Local Government, Shaun Leane.

The individual concerned reportedly used other companies controlled by him to submit separate and more expensive quotations to give the impression that council requirements had been met.

The report exposes significant gaps in local government contract oversight process. The Ombudsman notes:

  • Several layers of contractual arrangements helped mask his associations.
  • As a contractor, the individual concerned did not receive the same induction as a permanent employee would have.
  • A lack of effective oversight.
  • A contract that was insufficiently specific about the actual work to be undertaken.
  • A lack of due diligence in tender and requirement processes.
  • Lax oversight permitted this person to manipulate Council processes for almost two years

The Ombudsman concludes that this person knowingly misused his position at the Council to obtain a significant private benefit of about $1.6 million.

Victorians deserve accountability and transparency from the Andrews Labor Government, not endless delays and cover-ups. Only a Liberal Nationals Government will deliver that.  

Comments attributable to Shadow Minister for Local Government, David Morris:

“In 2019-20, local councils spent $9.4 billion providing services and building infrastructure for their local communities. A big chunk of that $9.4 billion is provided by contractors through what this report clearly demonstrates is a flawed process.

“Why has the Minister for Local Government allowed a situation to develop where Councils are not required to demonstrate compliance with proper contract management practices, and what is he doing to fix it?”

Local council business fees and charges to be frozen under Liberal Nationals plan to boost support for small businesses

The Liberal Nationals today announced the third part of the Local Business Action Plan to make Victoria the small business capital of the nation, with a commitment to freeze selected fees levied on businesses by local councils for four years.

As part of the Liberal Nationals Local Business Action Plan, a number of local government fees will be frozen including footpath and road occupation fees, fees on hairdressers and beauty businesses, fees on food businesses, and fees on accommodation providers.

The full list of fees will be selected in consultation with small businesses, industry associations and local councils across the state.

An O’Brien Liberal Nationals Government will also prevent local councils from imposing new fees on small business without the express permission of the Minister for Local Government.

The policy sends the message that an O’Brien Liberal Nationals government will back local jobs, local business and local success.

With the $1,500 small business fee rebate policy providing a State government credit for local and state government fees, the fee freeze will ensure there is no inappropriate cost shifting between different levels of government.

Comments attributable to the Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Small Business, Michael O’Brien:

“Small business is the lifeblood of our economy, but over the past six years, and especially during COVID lockdowns in 2020, the Andrews Labor Government’s mismanagement has smashed small businesses. Many will never recover.

“The Liberal Nationals’ Local Business Action Plan backs local business, local jobs and local success.

“Local communities need growing small businesses and councils must not look to hike fees on this vital sector.

“The time has come for governments to get off the back of small business, cut red tape and let small business get on with the work of growing our economy and creating jobs.”

Comments attributable to Shadow Minister for Local Government, David Morris:

“Many councils have done the right thing, and resisted the temptation to bolster their financial position by slugging local small businesses, but some have not.

“Small traders who survived the 2020 COVID lockdowns are hanging on by their fingertips, and increasing council charges put their survival at risk. They need support to stay in business, not more reasons to leave.

“Freezing the cost of fees levied on local businesses is a practical and effective way to deliver that support.”

A New Local Government Act? – Debate shut down!

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (16:09:05) — I too rise to oppose the adjournment of debate on this bill.

As I made clear in my opening remarks in the second-reading debate, this is a very detailed bill. The heft of the bill indicates the size of it: 409 clauses, 119 consequential amendments plus four principal acts being amended. There is an enormous amount of detail, and it is just plain ridiculous for legislation of this type to not be considered in detail.

There was a strong expectation that this bill would be considered in detail, and now, for reasons best known to itself, the government has decided that it should not go down that path.

I also want to pick up on a point made by the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change a couple of minutes ago. It appears that that minister, despite the length of her service in this house, does not understand the difference between the second-reading debate and the consideration-in-detail stage.

The second-reading debate is about the broad principles of a bill. It is not about the nitty-gritty, it is not clause by clause, it is not about specific concerns. It is about the principles of the bill.

That is the way this Parliament has operated since its inception; it is the way every Westminster parliament operates. I think it is absolutely staggering that a minister of the Crown can stand up and say, ‘Well, you’ve had your opportunity to have more second-reading speakers and you haven’t taken up that opportunity’. That is just complete nonsense.

We have addressed, I think quite effectively, the principles around this bill. I did it for 30 minutes; a number of other speakers also made contributions. But I certainly made the point, as did the other contributions from this side that I heard, that this is a very detailed and important bill and it deserves serious consideration in detail.

It is not a slim bill simply amending an existing principal act; it is a complete rewrite of the Local Government Act 1989. For this house to attempt to abrogate its responsibility to consider the bill clause by clause, to consider the bill in detail, to pass in the end the best possible bill that we can, is frankly an absolute disgrace.

Legislative Assembly 21 June 2018

A New Local Government Act?

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) — It is a pleasure to rise this evening to open the debate on behalf of the opposition on the Local Government Bill 2018.

The bill is intended to give effect to section 74A(1) of the Constitution Act 1975. Of course, as all members will be aware, that is the section of the constitution that provides that local government is a distinct and essential tier of government consisting of democratically elected councils, councils that have functions and powers that the Parliament considers necessary to ensure the peace, order and good government of each municipal district. That is a rather quaint and old-fashioned term — peace, order and good government — but I think it is a term that sums up pretty effectively the appropriate role of local government.

In terms of actual legislative impact, the bill repeals and re-enacts the Local Government Act 1989 apart from the provisions that deal with sewers, drainage and transport; repeals the City of Greater Geelong Act 1993, which has largely passed its use-by date and the necessity for it to continue to exist; and amends the City of Melbourne Act 2001 and the Victoria Grants Commission Act 1976.

I must say I do have a bit of a sense of deja vu because when I was first elected as a councillor, which is now more than 30 years ago, the Local Government Act 1989 had been under development for some time. It had reached the draft bill stage in August 1987 when I got elected. Yes, I know some members of the house were not yet born in 1987, but that is just the value of experience and being able to bring that to this chamber.

It had reached the draft bill stage by August 1987, but it was not second read in this house until the following year, in April 1988. And it was not until April 1989 that it was second read in the other place.

Despite the great care and the long consultation that occurred with that bill, it still needed to be amended significantly and reasonably soon after the act first became operational.

As is proposed with this bill, the phase in had quite a long tail to it. Some of those changes were new provisions that needed to be brought in, some were by way of repairing omissions and some of course were a result of the evolution of the role of local government itself.

That bill was a significant change from the Local Government Act 1958, which was the 1958 consolidation, but when you look at the 1958 act it bears a remarkable resemblance to the Local Government Act 1874, which is where it really all started.

The transition to the 1989 act from the 1958 act introduced a significant change to the way in which local government was governed. Of course there was some history around the introduction because the Cain government had attempted to force amalgamations of local councils; we had 210 of them at the time. That attempt had effectively been abandoned in August 1986 and a lot of work was done to try and repair the lack of trust on both sides, from government and from local government, but certainly when the bill was being discussed the scars were fresh.

I think probably the act that emerged from that was in fact a better act because of the extent of genuine, serious discussion about the future of local government that had to occur.

As we know, the bill is significant in terms of size as well as substance.

Unfortunately it would take me a couple of days to talk about the various provisions and what they will do, but essentially the bill relates to the role and powers of a council, so things like the office of mayor and deputy mayor and how they are elected; provisions relating to councillor entitlements; the CEO, staff; audit and risk committees, which are certainly something that were not in the 1989 act to start with; council decision-making; accountability procedures; local laws; and good practice guidelines. I will come back to the good practice guidelines a bit later.

The bill relates to planning and financial management, so strategic planning, budget processes, financial reporting and financial management rates and charges, which is exactly what it sounds like apart from the incorporation of the environmental upgrade agreements and the continuation of the rate capping provisions; council operations, so service performance, procurement and beneficial enterprises — again something that if time permits, I will come back to — and powers in relation to land.

There is a whole part on council integrity, which is certainly something that would not have been a feature of the act 30 years ago. Some may say it is unnecessary now; I am not one of those people. I think perhaps it could have been done in a more succinct and less complex manner, but in whatever form we have a separate part of this bill that deals with those issues.

The next part deals with ministerial oversight, governance directions, municipal monitors — of course we have had another one of those appointed today — commissions of inquiry, suspensions and temporary administration. The next part deals with the electoral provisions and all things relating to elections, and then there are general provisions: the service of notices, criminal liability, obstruction of council and so on.

That is a very, very quick skim across the top of what is a very, very — and necessarily so — detailed piece of legislation. It is the outcome of effectively a four-stage consultation process. The initial discussion paper was issued in September 2015, and input was sought in a variety of ways, including a series of forums. I understand there were 12 commissioned technical papers, various meetings between the government and peak bodies and so on.

A total of 348 submissions were received, so a reasonable number of submissions, although in the context of local government — something that affects every citizen of the state in one way or another — perhaps that is not so many submissions.

The second stage was the reform policy directions paper, which was in June 2016. Again a similar community engagement strategy was followed, and there were still a reasonable number of submissions — 333. The number was slightly down but effectively much the same. The detail of the reforms was then developed further for consideration in the context of a draft bill — to inform the draft bill, essentially.

Then late last year we had the release of the draft bill. Again public submissions were sought, and 190 were received. By my estimate at least half of those submissions, and perhaps more, were not submissions from the general public. They were from councils, associations, other industry bodies or organisations like regional libraries and so on. They were valuable but perhaps not as valuable as submissions from the broader community might have been.

Since then the process has been somewhat telescoped because, while the initial early deadline for submissions on the draft bill was — quite sensibly, in my view — extended to the end of February, from then on basically it had been an internal process until we saw the bill second read in this house less than a month ago.

It was perhaps not the best way to go about this process. It would have perhaps been better to say, ‘All right, we’ve put out the draft. We’ve have had an enormous amount of input’, and there was a terrific amount of input into the draft, ‘and we’ve picked up a number of things’, and if time permits I may go into some of those, ‘and this is what the bill now looks like’, and then go back out again and say, ‘Here’s draft 2 with all your feedback incorporated. How did we go?’. Unfortunately that did not occur.

The first time we saw the next stage was, as I said, when the bill was actually second read. Perhaps the amendments that the Attorney-General has just proposed recognise that time was of the essence in terms of the way the bill was handled.

I understand there is a logical explanation, and I am not being at all critical of anyone for seeking to do it this way. There is a perfectly logical explanation. We have got five and a half sitting weeks left on the parliamentary calendar for the year, and then the Parliament is prorogued and the opportunity to get the bill through in this Parliament is lost. I recognise the practical difficulties in terms of the time, but I think unfortunately the bill before the house reflects the omission of that next loop of consultation, and that is problematic.

As I indicated, the bill was second read on 24 May. Whilst sufficient time has certainly been made available for the Parliament to familiarise itself with the provisions proposed in the bill — I think, despite its size, I am reasonably conversant with what is in the bill, and I have been able to get feedback from the peak bodies and some others — it is obviously not enough time to get feedback from each and every council.

The peak bodies have provided good feedback, but unfortunately, as I said, this bill affects 79 councils. It affects 79 different local government communities and many more than 79 communities in the broader sense. Unfortunately we have not been able to factor their views in. Given the importance of local government to the community, I think that is an unfortunate omission.

I should make the point, though, that obviously — not obviously; it was a courtesy, and it was extended to me — I was briefed on the bill. I was briefed very, very promptly after the bill was introduced, and I want to acknowledge not only the comprehensive nature of the briefing but also the information that has been provided subsequently. Certainly there has been no impediment put in my way for me to come to a reasonable understanding of the bill, and anything that I required to be able to come to that conclusion in the relatively short time frame was provided, so I do want to acknowledge that. I appreciate that very much.

The government says there are a number of main reforms. They relate to things like greater leadership from mayors, consistency of council representative structures and increased participation in formal voting. The first two I can connect with the bill reasonably well. For the third one I think the connection is a little more tenuous. There is a requirement to undertake community engagement processes before the adoption of a four-year plan and a four-year budget. I think both four-year plans and four-year budgets are a sensible approach, if for no other reason than it requires the councillors to collectively come to a strategic view of where they want to take the council in those four years and determine the spending priorities accordingly.

There is a proposed integrated strategic plan and reporting approach — a long-term approach — a four-year plan, a four-year budget and a long-term community vision, all of which seems eminently sensible to me. I guess where I become a little bit less enthusiastic, shall we say, is the requirement for a 10-year financial plan and a 10-year asset plan, because I suspect a lot of the time, effort and ratepayers money will be consumed in the preparation of these 10-year plans and then they will be put on the shelf or put in the cupboard and essentially not referred to again except perhaps in passing when the next four-year plan is considered.

For some councils it will work and work really, really well, but I suspect for the majority it will be something that they have to do rather than something that adds value to the process.

There are also strengths and power as far as the minister goes with individual councillors. Having been on the other side of the house as Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government and having had at least one instance where that was a significant problem for a council, I certainly have no issue with that.

There is a CEO employment remuneration policy — an apparently independent advisory mechanism to guide recruitment, contractual arrangements and performance monitoring.

Personally I would have preferred to see mandated advertising of the CEO’s position. I think it is something that quite often councils will avoid, even though they know they should be doing it. They will avoid it because they do not want to offend the CEO. They do not want to say, ‘Bill, you’re doing a great job, we like you and we’re happy with what you’re doing, but we’re going to go to the market just to check’. If it is in the act and it has got to be done, it can be done and it gives the council plenty of cover to do it.

Where councils do not do it and they should, obviously there would be a compulsion. I would certainly prefer that, but that is not what is in the bill.

Again, apparently, there is increased financial sustainability — I am not sure about that — and a single method for the valuation of land.

There are a significant number of changes from the draft that are in the bill. I do not intend to go through them in any detail except to say that the changes that have been made have been more about trying to pick up many of the points that were made in the submissions, and I think largely they have worked well.

The bill does remove the unsound mind as a disqualification for being a councillor, suggesting that that provision is not in line with 21st century thinking.

I do note that the Constitution Act 1975 retains the exclusion from the Assembly and the Council voters rolls for that very reason. While those people who may be on the roll by virtue of being a landowner will not be disqualified by that provision, the bulk of people on the voters roll will be picked up by the Constitution Act.

There are a range of other matters that are changed. As I was saying, I think it is largely a successful endeavour to pick up many of the issues that are raised in the draft. It certainly does not pick up all of those and it leaves a number of issues that remain in the bill.

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) has provided quite a significant assessment of the bill and raised a number of issues with regard to inappropriate delegation of legislative power and a number of issues with regard to the charter. They have written to the minister, and the minister has responded. I simply make the observation that I think the minister’s response effectively dispatches those issues, so I have no concerns there.

The issue with regard to the delegation of legislative power is around the rather long tail to the proclamation of the operational aspects of various stages of the bill, but given the nature of the beast I think that is entirely reasonable, and I am sure SARC will accept the minister’s view on that.

I sought views from the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV), the Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) and 79 councils on the draft bill. I obviously did not have time to speak to and seek the views of the councils on the final bill, but 69 councils were able to respond to me. I do want to thank them all for providing that advice to me because it gave me a very good feel for the issues in the bill. I also had valuable feedback from the Australian Services Union (ASU) and from Ratepayers Victoria.

The MAV have come out publicly today — and obviously I have had ongoing discussions with them — and expressed concern about a number of issues, the first being the compulsory or forced transfer to capital improved value valuations.

Their point is that while rates obviously will not go up because of the reapportionment of rates given the change in the valuation methodology, some residents in four municipalities — Maribyrnong, Port Phillip, Whittlesea and Yarra cities — could be facing rate rises of as much as 10 per cent. The contention of the MAV is that the rates burden will shift from non-residential properties to residential properties. They consider it to be an unexpected and unfair tax hit that families simply cannot afford.

They have also expressed concern at the proposal to lower the municipal charge from 20 per cent to 10 per cent — that is, 20 per cent of total rates is the maximum that a municipal charge can be set to raise. Particularly in regional and rural councils — probably more in regional councils — there is a concern that by lowering the cap from 20 per cent to 10 per cent the application of that flat charge, which is essentially a flat charge on each rateable property in the municipality, will again have a big hit, in this case, on the farming community.

I have no idea what the Rural City of Horsham or Northern Grampians shire are doing in terms of municipal charges, but if you look at those two councils as an example of the scale of rates coming in, Horsham in 2015–16 had rates come in at $23.72 million, with Northern Grampians at $15.9 million. A 10 per cent shift at Horsham, for example, would be nearly $2.4 million which, given probably the relatively limited number of ratepayers in the broadacre category, is potentially going to have a significant impact. The MAV again have expressed their concern about that, and particularly the potential impact on farmers in terms of their rate contribution.

They have also expressed concern with the proposal to limit the mix of possible options in terms of representational structures into either unsubdivided or subdivided but equal wards. I think there are certainly some concerns with the current system. I am not at all convinced that what is suggested is the best possible fix. It is a possible fix and it would be, in my view, much better than what we have got now, but I am not sure that it is the best possible fix.

Not surprisingly, they also would like to use this opportunity to do something about the rate capping legislation. I think that is a discussion for another day.

The VLGA have identified three issues that they wish to raise. They have expressed concern about rate capping and, as I was saying, in my view it is a discussion for another day. They are proposing optional preferential voting, which is something that I personally would think is probably a good thing. I suspect the government would not share that view, but it is worth exploring.

Perhaps the most substantial of all these three, from my perspective, is the changes that are proposed to the specific powers for the mayor.

The mayor will have an enhanced leadership role and will have to report to the community in terms of the implementation of the four-year strategy, but it is also proposed that the mayor will have the capacity to appoint the chairs of council committees.

That may not sound like a big thing if you have never been a member of a council, but it creates the potential for some divergence of opinion and potentially friction between the mayor and councillors because the mayor may well appoint members of the council to chair council committees that do not have the confidence of their own colleagues, but may be allies or colleagues or the preferred candidate — whatever — of the mayor. So it does create the possibility of friction.

It is an issue that I was certainly well and truly aware of when we were experimenting with Greater Geelong City Council and I would approach this one with caution, I think.

As I mentioned, the ASU also provided some input. Their initial submission was very comprehensive, and I thought they made some very valuable points. With regard to the final bill, their main priority there was, again, with regard to rate capping.

There is one aspect of the bill that I want to pick up directly, and that is the good practice guidelines. Proposed section 82 says the minister may issue good practice guidelines. They need to be published on an internet site and compliance by a council with relevant good practice guidelines can be used as evidence that the council has complied with the corresponding requirement under the act or regulations.

I am a little bit — not a little, a lot — concerned about this because it is, from my perspective in any case, effectively a delegation of the legislative authorities of the Parliament. Normally we obviously have regulations which are done by a disallowable instrument, but they are subject to being overridden by either house of the Parliament. The guidelines that are proposed would not be subject to that recourse, and I think that is a concern because it is essentially subordinate legislation that is beyond the scope of the Parliament to have some influence in. It would set, in my view, a very nasty precedent.

There are a number of other issues with regard to the move from standards to an enabling legislation. There is the potential, for example, to have 79 different procurement arrangements for councils, and I am not sure that is really the best possible outcome. While I have picked up some of the detail in the bill — as I mentioned it is a big document, it covers a lot of ground and I could not possibly begin to cover all that ground in half an hour, probably even half a day, and I am certainly not going to suggest I should take the Parliament’s time to do that — I think it is important that we do actually have that discussion, because there is a lot here that will not otherwise be considered.

Local government derives its authority — and it is considerable authority — from the Parliament. The bill before the house proposes a significant change to the manner in which that authority is delegated, and it suggests a significant change to the constraints that have historically been placed upon it.

As I said, it is a major and complex piece of legislation — 409 sections. It repeals or significantly amends four principal acts and makes consequential amendments to a further 119 acts. It is a big piece of legislation and I do not think it is there yet. It, in my view, needs significant further work before it will be fit for purpose.

Had that further round of consultation occurred, which I talked about earlier, perhaps the final bill would have been serviceable. I think that is unlikely, but in any case I understand why that did not occur and I understand why we are where we are at.

But given the significance of this bill, I think proper scrutiny is required. I do not believe that the normal process for second readings and even consideration in detail in this house would provide sufficient opportunity for full scrutiny by the Parliament, and I certainly do not propose to come into the house with a list of 20, 30, 50, 200 amendments to the bill, which would have potentially been on the cards had the opportunity been there to, as I say, consult more broadly.

I do think the bill would benefit from that scrutiny, so I would suggest that the appropriate action for the opposition to take, and what we intend to do, is to not oppose the bill in this debate and to allow the bill to proceed to the Legislative Council. We do believe that the appropriate course would be for the Legislative Council to refer the bill to a committee so that there is the opportunity for some further discussion.

We do not want to throw the bill out. We do not want to waste the effort. There has been a lot of time and effort and money and commitment put into this bill, but there are a lot of things in there, I think, that do need further exploration and would be well served by referral to a committee in the other place, so I will certainly be speaking to the crossbench and speaking to the Greens with a view to having the bill referred to a committee for further consideration.

Legislative Assembly 19 June 2018

When is a Rate Cap not a Rate Cap? – When it’s a Waste Charge.

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) — This government went to the 2014 election with an explicit promise to cap rates. Like so many other Labor promises, this one was not worth the paper it was written on.

Labor promised to limit rate increases to CPI, but between March 2015 and March 2018 the CPI has gone up by 6.9 per cent. Rates in the same period are up by 11 per cent, almost twice CPI.

Promise delivered? I do not think so.

Does the so-called rate cap cover all council charges? Apparently not. During the recent estimates hearings the Minister for Local Government confirmed that assistance given to local councils to help with recycling arrangements would expire on 30 June. No more money will be forthcoming.

From 1 July councils will have the opportunity, in the words of the bureaucracy, to ‘reset charges’. In my language that is a rate hike, but apparently it will not be a rate hike because waste charges, according to the government, are not rates.

Whether it is a rate or whether it is a charge, it is still a tax, and it comes out of the pockets of long-suffering ratepayers.

I do not blame councils, and I understand they are the meat in the sandwich. They have been left out to dry by this government, forced to rely on an export market because of this government’s failure to encourage local reprocessing of recyclables.

That is why households and businesses pay a tax of $64.30 a tonne to encourage appropriate local responses to resource recovery. The government is happy to take the tax but to give nothing in return.

That is a promise they did not make, but it is one I guarantee they will keep.

Legislative Assembly 19 June 2018

Central Goldfields Shire Dismissal

This is a bill of course to dismiss the Central Goldfields Shire Council.

Central Goldfields is a municipality of some 1530-plus square kilometres and has a population of around about 12 500, of whom 7500 are resident in the main township of Maryborough. It is 180 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. It has a relatively low population densityand an annual budget in the region of $26 million, I believe, and assets of some $282 million.

It is a municipality that fits comfortably into the small shire councils category.

In terms of its finances, while its level of indebtedness is relatively high, the Auditor-General in his most recent report on councils was relatively comfortable with that. In terms of the council’s internal financing, it has been patchy, but the most recent forecast indicates that that is headed in the right direction as well.

Similarly for liquidity, they have green figures right across the board. In terms of net result there are some difficulties with the asset renewal gap, but that is not matter that is unique to this council by any stretch of the imagination.

Similarly with capital replacement, there are some amber figures there.

It is a relatively small council; financially it is not amongst the wealthiest in the state but it is certainly not on the brink of bankruptcy by a long stretch either.

There is of course in the background of this bill a history of issues, some dating back to 2013, but essentially this bill has been generated off the back of a report of the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate, which was released a couple of weeks ago.

I do not intend to go through the details of this report — it speaks for itself — but it is worth noting that Central Goldfields is in terms of disadvantage one of the most challenged municipalities in the state, and is indeed the most challenged municipality outside the metropolitan area.

It is the type of area that really needs the support of the Parliament to get back onto its feet.

The matters that have been raised in the report of the local government inspectorate, if proven, do not reflect well on those people involved or on some of the actions of some of those people.

In terms of the bill before us, it is indeed a pretty stock standard bill, but of course sacking a council is a significant step. That is why we now do not allow the Minister for Local Government to do that unilaterally; we require the agreement of the Parliament. It is a significant step.

I understand in this case that the government has been advised by the department that the removal of the sitting council is necessary and that is the basis on which the bill has been brought into the house.

We may have one or two quibbles with the bill but nothing of consequence.

I note that there is some flexibility in terms of the number of administrators who are able to be appointed — one or more. There is also some flexibility in terms of the breadth of the administrators’ powers, that being defined by the instrument of appointment rather than simply all those matters that are normally bestowed on a council by the Local Government Act 1989.

Having said that, I would prefer the Parliament to be making those decisions, but at the same time I can understand why that flexibility has been proposed by parliamentary counsel and no doubt by the department as well. I certainly do not see those minor points as show stoppers.

As has probably been telegraphed by the fact that the bill has been brought in and is now being debated, the opposition will not be opposing the bill.

Accordingly I wish it a speedy passage.

Minister Uninformed on Peninsula Planning Issues

I raise a matter for the Minister for Planning, and the action I seek is that he take immediate action to ensure that his recent changes to the general residential zone within the Mornington Peninsula planning scheme are suspended until such time as the Mornington Peninsula Housing and Settlement Strategy 2017 is completed and implemented and an implementation plan for changes to the general residential zone is agreed.

On 7 June I asked a question of the minister around what action he had taken to ensure his recent changes to the general residential zone were not in conflict with the Mornington Peninsula Localised Planning Statement.

The answer, which came almost a month late, made it very clear that the real answer was no. It was some seven paragraphs, but the real answer was no, because he replied that the department had:

… undertaken an analysis of residentially zoned land in the Mornington Peninsula planning scheme. It found that for the entire municipality only 13 per cent of land area is included in the general residential zone.

Seventy per cent of the entire land area is included in green wedge or special use zones, so what he is actually saying is that almost half the land that is inside the urban growth boundary is in fact zoned for general residential. He went on to say: The department will work closely with council to ensure any future amendment is strategically sound … presumably on the basis of the government’s rules.

I do not want to be too hard on the minister. He is a decent bloke. But in this answer he clearly indicates that he either had no idea that the localised planning scheme existed, or if he did, then he gave it no weight.

The answer unfortunately reveals his ignorance of planning issues on the Mornington Peninsula.

If the minister wishes to resuscitate the approach to the Mornington Peninsula taken by Minister Madden and Minister Hulls, which was essentially that the peninsula is just another suburb, then that is fine. He should have the courage to come out and say so.

If he does not believe that, and I certainly hope that is the case, then he should suspend the operation of these planning scheme amendments, work through the issues with the Council, and do something that is in conformity with the localised planning scheme.

Planning Changes a Fundamental Threat to the Peninsula

For most of the second half of the 20th century there was bipartisan support for sensible planning on the Mornington Peninsula.

Successive generations recognised that growth was both welcome and inevitable but that if it was to occur, it had to be managed properly to ensure that the special character of the peninsula was retained for the benefit and pleasure of all Victorians. As Melbourne’s population continues to grow, particularly to the south-east, so too does the need for access to all the pleasures that the peninsula provides.

Maintaining our green wedges and non-urban areas and the individual characters of our towns and villages is a crucial part of that equation, but unfortunately in recent years the bipartisan commitment to properly manage growth has been lost.

First the Bracks government decided the peninsula was really nothing more than an extension of the metropolitan area and applied Melbourne 2030 controls to local development. The council and the community fought those changes and were largely successful in rejecting the bulk of the measures imposed.

In 2013 the Mornington Peninsula Localised Planning Statement was inserted into the planning scheme as state policy, recognising that the peninsula should be planned as an area of special character and importance with a role clearly distinct from but complementary to metropolitan Melbourne and designated areas.

Unfortunately the current Minister for Planning, while not removing the statement from the planning scheme, has sought to diminish its role and effectiveness through the introduction of the new general residential zone.

This zone will permit not only dramatically increased density but also the construction of 11-metre-high dwellings without a permit. These changes are fundamental threats to the character, particularly the coastal character, of the Mornington Peninsula.

If this new policy is not reversed, the low-key residential nature of our towns and villages will be devastated.

City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017

I am pleased to have the opportunity this afternoon to open the debate on the City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017 and to put on behalf of the opposition our views on this particular bill.

If this government has proved anything, it has proved that when it comes to letting the democratic process run its course in Geelong it is not very keen on the outcomes. The government has been prepared to set aside the democratically elected institution and to attempt to remodel democracy in a manner to suit its own partisan political ambitions, and this legislation certainly is no exception.

The bill before us is not seriously about meaningful civic reform. It is a bill about driving Labor’s agenda and a bill about driving the best possible outcome for Labor in their marginal Geelong seats.

The house will recall on 12 April last year the Minister for Local Government brought in a bill to sack the council and sought to debate it forthwith. Indeed we were forced to debate it forthwith. We were forced through the use of a rather obscure parliamentary device, which I had not seen used before nor have I seen used since, in order to — —

Ms Hutchins — It could have been an Australian first.

Mr MORRIS — The minister interjects that it was an Australian first. I do not think it was an Australian first. I am pretty sure it had happened before, but it was certainly an obscure device that was used to force the debate.

Of course the government argued that even though they had been effectively sitting on their tails for 16 months — there had been 16 months of inaction — the house needed to act that afternoon effectively to sack the council.

Indeed only 20 minutes before we sat that day did the government begin, belatedly, to brief the opposition. We got a bare outline; we got a 10 minute summary and a sighting of a draft bill. We did not actually see the bill; that was only to be revealed when it was brought on for debate.

The bill of course was the result of the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Greater Geelong City Council. We had the opportunity to flip through the report, but it was embargoed effectively to be released in conjunction with the debate.

Eventually — I think it was about halfway through question time, from memory — we obtained a copy of that report, and we did manage to read it, but only just. Certainly we were not able to go through it as comprehensively as is desirable when the outcome of the report was to sack the council.

The government planned to sack the council until 2020, to put in its own hand picked commissioners, and again for the sake of political advantage, not for the good of the people of Geelong.

The opposition, as members will recall, opposed that proposal. We were prepared to support the suspension of democracy, but only until the necessary work was done, so we did not oppose the sacking and indeed ultimately supported it. However, we wanted the problems dealt with; we wanted them dealt with in a timely manner and a new council elected in a reasonable time frame.

Despite the government using its numbers in this place, the other place fortunately agreed with our view, and the government was forced two days later, on Thursday afternoon, to agree to the changes. In line with the opposition’s view at the time, a new council will hopefully be elected this October.

Despite this setback, the government continues to pursue its own political agenda in terms of local government in Geelong and, in my view, continues to ignore the real interests of the citizens of Geelong and seeks to entrench its perceived political advantage in the Geelong area.

Did the council need to be sacked? Absolutely, no argument. We agreed at the time it needed to be sacked. The culture was toxic, and there were significant issues right across the organisation, but it was not a culture that was driven by the constitutional structure of the council. It was a culture that was born of the organisation itself, and it was rotten. It was a culture of bullying embedded in the administration.

There was a litany of organisational failures, and I will go to some of those in a few minutes. Perhaps worst of all was the failure to provide a safe workplace, both in terms of the administrative staff and in terms of the operational staff, the outdoor staff.

I do want to refer to some of the matters raised in the commission of inquiry report. As members will recall, that commission was headed by Terry Moran, AC, and included Jude Munro, AO, and Frances O’Brien, SC. While I might have some differences of opinion with those people in terms of the best way to go about things, all three are distinguished Australians who have made their mark on the Victorian and national communities, so I do not fault their findings. They marked the council hard.

They set out eight pillars in a framework for good governance. They indicated that the council was performing poorly in terms of direction and leadership and culture and behaviour capability. They indicated that the council was performing adequately but not particularly well in terms of structure, systems and policies, in terms of decision making, communications and community engagement, and risk and compliance.

Indeed they only gave it a tick for matters of monitoring and review, which is not acceptable by anyone’s standards. They concluded that the council administration was seriously depleted and required major organisational and cultural reform. They also noted that the council administration had failed to support the mayor and his predecessor through the lack of adequate advice and the lack of adequate administrative support, and as a consequence placing significant pressure on each of those two individuals in terms of their directly elected mayoral role.

They also talked about — and this was noted as being up until very recently, at the time of the report — a culture within the council of not responding in a prompt fashion to staff complaints of bullying and harassment and a lack of an effective system for reporting and dealing with complaints and indeed a feeling of powerlessness amongst staff to seek help and to have confidence that, if they did lodge complaints, they would be dealt with in a fair, prompt and transparent manner.

They also noted that the restoration of good governance would not only require changes to electoral structures but a major organisational and cultural reform. They noted the lack of a robust long term strategic plan, that there was a need for transformational reform for a change management program and that the administration had tolerated poor performance and underperformance that had become a major source of frustration for staff and, naturally, as a consequence was incredibly damaging to morale.

They also noted a couple of physical things, particularly the dispersal of government departments across several locations, no doubt a legacy of the amalgamation of a number of former municipalities in the early 1990s. They noted that that dispersal did not assist in terms of the development of a shared vision, shared values and shared purposes, and the need to consolidate to one central site.

They are just a few of the actions in the recommendations that were made.

The other one that is probably worth noting — and I will come back to it in a second — is the need for the 20 to 30 year outcome, focus vision and strategy 3

for the council and for the city. I understand that that at least is being addressed.

The concern with this bill is that while it addresses the constitutional structure it really does not address any of the other significant problems that were identified in the report. I know that the minister in her media release of 9 May indicated that the administrators were engaged in the development of a new vision for the city, which I referred to a moment or so ago, and that they engaged with 13 000 locals, a bit over 5 per cent of the population of the city.

But there is no evidence that any of those other issues — the toxic culture and the problems in the workplace — have been addressed and certainly none of those issues are dealt with in terms of this legislation. Admittedly not many of them can be dealt with by legislation, but we have no update or indication of outcomes from the actions of the administrator. It would have been useful, I think, to put those things into context.

Anyway, the council was sacked following the passage of the legislation. The government then proceeded to set up the Geelong Citizens Jury. This part of the process was unusual and also perhaps a first in Australia. I do not know. It was certainly a different way of doing business.

I think 100 members were involved. I am sure they discharged their duties diligently for their $100 a day, but I have to say that I am always a little nervous whenever a filter is placed between the general public — our constituents — and the decision makers.

No matter how well intentioned or how diligent they were or how vigorously the jury members discharged their task — and I have no reason to question any of those things, I have no doubt they did their best, as they saw it — there is nevertheless because of the structure a filter placed between the community and the ultimate decision makers. I am not sure that that is a particularly helpful development in terms of our democracy.

The other interesting thing that comes out of this is that while the final report is dated January 2017, the minister issued a media release on 26 November 2016, indicating that:

The 100 member independent citizens jury met for the final time today — being 26 November and that the government would:now consider the jury’s advice … whereas in fact it appears that they continued to meet and indeed only finalised the report in January 2017.

I have not sat down and done a page by page comparison between the November 2016 and January 2017 reports, but they certainly appear to be rather similar. It would be useful to understand why the apparent discrepancy occurred.

In terms of the report itself, the jury has, I think wisely, talked about principles and about aspirational recommendations and practical recommendations, and the government has responded in those terms.

The practical recommendations revolve around the constitution of the council, whether the mayor should be directly elected or not, and about the number of wards and the number of councillors.

The aspirational recommendations relate to a range of other matters, many of which are the sorts of things that one would hope in an appropriately functioning municipality you would not need to highlight. But I think it was certainly worthwhile making the point again that there are standards and our community expects elected members, be they councillors or members of Parliament, to behave according to those standards.

There was, of course, one aspirational recommendation that the government ruled out. That related to a proposal to restrict a particular group in the community from participating fully in the democratic process by over contributing to campaigns. I do not think there would be any difference of opinion between this side and the government on that particular recommendation.

In terms of the specifics from the jury with regard to the decision making process, there is quite an extensive narrative in terms of how they came to make the recommendation that the concept of the directly elected mayor should be withdrawn from Victoria’s second city. They note that there was a close to 50 50 vote and note that:

… there was a significant group who were undecided unless further aspirational changes … could occur.

On the following page, page 4 of the report, they note that:

Clarifying these options may have changed the results.

They also note that there are key advantages for a directly elected mayor, including ‘Greater engagement from community in the voting process’ and ‘A greater mandate from the whole community to drive the agenda for Geelong’. But indeed the advantages as they have set them out for a directly elected mayor seem to me to be far more compelling than the advantages they have laid out in terms of a council elected mayor.

They have also recommended, in terms of wards and councillors, a four ward structure, basically three plus three plus three plus two. The three plus three plus three seems to me a reasonable proposition, given the physical layout of Geelong, the geography of Geelong and the manner in which development has occurred.

So that was the jury.

As I have mentioned, the government has responded and the consequence of the response is effectively the bill that we have before us.

In terms of the bill itself, clauses 1, 2, 3 and 11 are standard, in terms of commencement, definition of the principal act, repeal on the first anniversary of operation, that sort of thing. To me the bill really is about repealing the mechanism that is currently in place in the principal act for the direct election of a mayor and substituting that with a process to elect a mayor from the council and some consequent amendments, plus a proposal to set the internal subdivisional ward structure via an order in council.

I was interested to read an opinion piece from the Committee for Geelong on 12 April 2017. Rebecca Casson noted, among other things, that the committee was among the first to present to the Geelong Citizens Jury. In her words:

We conveyed the message that now is not the time for Geelong to go back to councillors deciding behind closed doors who should be the mayor of our great city … Our community deserves a chance to elect a champion for Geelong …

… As Geelong grows, our city needs strong local government leadership. The committee believes that mayors directly elected by the people are given a mandate from the people, and can therefore claim to have greater legitimacy to lead in local government.

I think certainly those are sentiments that the opposition would agree with, so under standing orders I wish to advise the house that amendments to this bill have been prepared, and I request that they be circulated.

Opposition amendments circulated by Mr MORRIS (Mornington) under standing orders.

Mr MORRIS — While they are being circulated I might just proceed, given the time. The opposition’s view is that a directly elected mayor should be retained. It is also our view that a directly elected deputy mayor should be added to the council.

We do agree, as I indicated earlier, that the jury’s view of 11 councillors being a reasonable number for this city is appropriate. Given that, we are proposing that the directly elected mayor be retained and that a deputy be added. With those two councillors, we believe that nine ward councillors is an appropriate number and that the municipality should be subdivided into three wards of three councillors each.

But also, and I think importantly, we do believe that the boundary should be determined by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC), and I will return to that in a minute.

It is clear, as I indicated, from the jury report that the existing model had strong support and that indeed, as it says, under some circumstances it would have been a majority view — in fact it was only because the modifications could not be dealt with that the majority of the jury did not support the existing model.

I think it would be a gross overreach and not reflective of the jury’s deliberations if a different outcome — the abolition of the directly elected mayor — were to become the outcome of this review. To deny the citizens of Victoria’s second city the opportunity to directly elect their mayor I think would be a great pity.

When this process was begun back in 2011 the concept was untried. It was an untested process, and we had to construct a model that could start the process but then perhaps be refined as experience was obtained, because beyond the City of Melbourne, which of course has city wide councillors elected, there was no experience in terms of directly elected mayors.

The concept, though, was strongly supported by the community and by the Committee for Geelong at the time, but there were some views there that perhaps did not lead to optimal operational structures, and certainly in terms of the consultation, which was extremely extensive, there was a very, very strong view presented to me — and I was the one conducting the consultation — that single member wards should be retained.

There was also very, very clear support for a directly elected mayor. As I think I said in the debate, there was almost no opposition, and that was the case. There was almost no opposition, and it came from a particular pocket associated with the office of the then member for Geelong.

Both those things were potentially in conflict, as I said, with the optimal model, so we came to the conclusion that we needed to construct a model that was consistent with the views of the community but that further modifications may be required in the light of experience. That was always the case, and that is why we flagged the intent and indeed proposed formally the conduct of a review in early 2015 ahead of the 2016 council elections.

For reasons best known to herself the present Minister for Local Government did not conduct that review, and then when it was too late to modify the model in an appropriate manner, we found the council was in any case sacked.

That review should have been undertaken. Had that review been undertaken I think it would have recommended appropriate adjustments to the mechanism, but instead we have a proposal from the government that effectively seeks to blame what were clearly administrative failures — and I detailed them extensively earlier in this contribution — and the toxic culture and use that as the basis to abandon this model entirely.

The other point I want to make is with regard to the Victorian Electoral Commission. The minister has indicated that the jury’s views on the structure will be or have been transmitted to the VEC for consideration. That is fine.

The problem I have with this bill is that rather than incorporate the whole of division 2 of part 10 of the Local Government Act 1989, which sets out the mechanism for review of ward boundaries, the only part that is proposed to be incorporated is section 220Q, which is the capacity for the minister by the device of an order in council to determine the structure effectively unilaterally or through those present at the executive council. There is no need to consult the VEC.

We have been told that has been done, but there is no obligation to do so. Going forward, for future reviews there is no obligation to consult the VEC either, so the bill sets up a mechanism where there is no independent assessment of the merit of the internal boundaries. That, I think, is of great concern.

The opposition does not support the essential proposition put forward in this bill. We do not believe Victoria’s second city should be deprived of the opportunity for every citizen to have a say in who their mayor is. We do believe that the initial model of a single mayor has not worked well and, as I have indicated, I had concerns at the time, but that was the way the community wanted to go.

We believe that the model could very well be strengthened, not only with additional administrative support as flagged by the inquiry, which is absolutely essential, but also by the addition of an elected citywide deputy mayor and by a breaking down of the individual wards that currently exist in the structure, and by tempering that breakdown so that there are still discrete geographical communities, because Geelong is still very much a collection of communities and that is where people feel their greatest connection.

We do see the abolition of a directly elected mayor as a direct threat to the opportunities that exist for Geelong. Equally, I am sure the government sees the existence of a directly elected mayor as a direct threat to their preferred political ascendancy in the city. Indeed we know that they will do anything they can to protect their political interests.

In this bill, unfortunately, they are seeking to entrench their perceived political advantage, but I think there is an opportunity to fine tune the current mechanism. There is an opportunity to come out of this review with a process that works and works well, one that works in the interests of the community but still allows the opportunity for the citizens of Victoria’s second city to have a direct say in who leads their city forward.