New Vic local gov laws seek transparency, miss donations caps

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday November 19, 2019

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The Victorian government plans to bring in a state-wide code of conduct for councillors as well as mandatory training for council election candidates.

The Local Government Bill 2019 was introduced into parliament last week with a range of reforms for the state’s 79 councils, with a focus on transparency and democracy.

Changes included a consistent electoral structure with single-member wards for all councils (except rural shires and Melbourne City Councils), which the government argued would make councillors more accountable and would encourage diversity of candidates by lowering the cost of running for council.

Stronger penalties for councillors who commit misconduct would also come into place, along with CEO employment and remuneration policies in line with state government standards. 

The bill has proposed more freedom for councils to work with other councils, government agencies, community organisations and the private sector, to improve service delivery. Councils would also be required to develop their own procurement policies, and communities would have more of a say in long-term plans.

Red tape found in the 1989 version of the bill would also be scrapped and replaced with a simpler framework.

But there is a small hole in the plan. When the government sought feedback on the bill in June, one of the proposed reforms was a cap on electoral campaign donations and gifts. That reform has disappeared from the new bill, amid an IBAC inquiry into the City of Casey council.

The first of a number of hearings examining alleged corruption in the council — including the possible influence of donations and gifts — was held this week.

Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam has called the bill a “travesty”.

“Corporate interests such as those of the gambling industry have no place in our local government. By abandoning donations caps and putting our councils up for sale, the government is opening the next election up to huge donations, at a time we’re seeing a serious IBAC investigation into exactly that,” she said in a statement.

The government has acknowledged the omission and asserted it would remain committed and “continue to work on” council donation laws.

Read more: Why conflicts of interest cannot be ignored: IBAC probes alleged corruption in the City of Casey

Minister for local government Adem Somyurek said the reforms would help councils meet the changing needs and expectations of the public.

“Strong local councils are crucial to building strong communities. This bill will make councils more accountable, democratic and help them deliver the services their communities rely on,” he said.

“We’ve undertaken extensive consultation which have resulted in the reforms our local government sector needs to deliver better outcomes for local communities and businesses.”

Consultation with councils and the community has been conducted over five stages since September 2015. The government has begun working on an implementation plan for the bill.

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