The Victorian government has opened up a debate about local democracy, announcing it has “no choice” but to sack Geelong’s directly elected mayor Darryn Lyons and its council.
Minister for Local Government Natalie Hutchins will today seek the dismissal of the City of Greater Geelong council until the 2020 local elections for “failure to provide good governance”.
It follows an independent commission of inquiry headed by former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Terry Moran, which reportedly recommended the council be sacked. The commission’s report is expected to be tabled in parliament around 1pm.
But the ouster is not a done deal. Hutchins will today introduce legislation to dissolve the council, but the lack of a government majority in the state’s upper house means there could be problems passing the bill.
According to the government, the grounds for sacking include:
- A serious failure to provide good government with the council so dysfunctional it is unable to work together in the city’s best interests, with its standard well below that expected of a city of Geelong’s size and economic importance;
- Failure to develop a long-term vision and strategic plan for the city; and
- Failure to properly respond to a report by former Australian human rights commissioner Susan Halliday, which found a culture of systemic bullying and other problems at the council.
The city’s colourful mayor Darryn Lyons hit back at the government on 774 ABC Melbourne, arguing that since he became mayor the council’s community satisfaction rating had increased from 55% to 69% — 16 points higher than the state average.
The former paparazzo (pictured) said he had not yet seen the report, despite media having been briefed on its contents, but dismissed concerns raised as outdated. He claims the few problems that “obviously” exist date back 12-20 years.
The minister said putting off election of a new council until 2020, despite local government elections being scheduled for October this year, would give enough time to resolve the issues:
“The report outlines serious governance failures, among other issues, leaving the government no choice but to dismiss the council. It is not a decision that has been taken lightly.
“The people of Geelong deserve better. The city is too important for it to be run by a dysfunctional council that is simply unable to work together.”
Residents left without democratic representation
The rare move — it would be only the sixth council to be sacked since premier Jeff Kennett’s mass amalgamations in the 1990s — has raised concerns about the sacking of a democratically elected body.
Municipal Association of Victoria president Bill McArthur told The Mandarin there is “quite a concern coming from the people of Geelong around how they will be represented and their voice will be heard if and when administrators are appointed”.
Though he said it was hard to make a judgement without having seen the report, leaving citizens without a democratically elected council until 2020 “seems like a long time”.
“It’s certainly disappointing when a democratically elected council is dismissed,” he argued. “At other levels of government, whether federal or state, when dysfunction is completely obvious, there is no move to dismiss.”
Victorian Local Government Association president Sebastian Klein said the government’s leaking of the report’s details to the press had “made an absolute mockery of due process … without cause for due process or respect of public disclosure”. Co-operation with the local government sector is “the exception rather than the rule”, he argued:
“One has to wonder, is the Minister ignorant of due process or just too arrogant to care?”
The earlier Halliday report, published late last year, found in its consultations:
“… people stating that they felt they had experienced aggressive, belligerent, threatening, disempowering, sexist, dogged, bombastic, arrogant, rude, spiteful, frightening, demeaning, belittling, objectified, exploitative, calculated, humiliating and intimidating behaviour.”
Despite the council’s high overall community satisfaction ratings, last year’s state government survey found satisfaction with customer service had declined significantly. The decline was highest among 35-49 year old respondents and men, which carried particular weight as both of those groups had the most contact with council over the previous 12 months.