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.