Victorian councils would be given the option of directly elected mayors and electronic voting as part of a state government proposal to overhaul how local governments are elected and function.
The Victorian government is seeking submissions on its directions paper, which includes requirements for councils to use participatory democratic initiatives, such as citizens’ juries, and would standardise a range of patchy rules on how local government elections are conducted.
Mayoral terms would be extended to two years and councils would be given the option of directly elected mayors — currently a privilege only enjoyed by the cities of Melbourne and Geelong. Most mayors in Victoria are elected to one-year terms by fellow councillors.
The minister would also be given stronger powers to deal with councillors who “compromise governance”, allowing for their suspension by an order in council. The government recently sacked the “substantially dysfunctional” City of Greater Geelong council.
The changes would not impact on local elections scheduled for later this year, but would be in place for 2020 elections.
Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins highlighted that the Act had been drafted in a different time and needed to be remade to “reinvigorate democratic practices”:
“The current Act predates the Kennett Government’s reforms of the 1990s. Many communities have become disconnected from their local councils, and candidate participation is low. The revolving door for mayors leaves many with the perspective that, by default, council chief executive officers — not mayors and elected councils — are left to steer councils over the longer term. In an environment of weak democratic legitimacy, councillors are often elected on narrow platforms disconnected from the strategic governance role that is their core responsibility.”
The review of the Local Government Act 1989 includes a range of suggestions “aimed at creating more efficient and collaborative local councils”:
- Extending mayoral terms to two years, strengthening their powers and providing the option of direct election;
- Making council electoral structures, the number of councillors and wards more consistent;
- Putting communities at the centre of shaping council plans by requiring councils to undertake deliberative community engagement (for example, citizens juries);
- Remove the requirement for non-resident property owners to be voters;
- Making voting rules consistent and providing the option for electronic voting — if reliable and feasible — for council elections in 2020;
- Giving stronger powers to the Minister for Local Government to deal with individual councillors who compromise council governance;
- Improving transparency of CEO pay, recruitment, conditions and performance;
- Creating a single consistent land valuation system for levying rates.
During the past year, the government has held 10 community consultation forums across Victoria and released a discussion paper, which received more than 300 submissions.
Victorian Local Governance Association president Councillor Sebastian Klein welcomed the release of the paper.
Cr Klein said that the Government had proposed significant changes to the Act and these would need to be discussed more broadly within the sector and the community.
“There are some good, sensible proposals being put forward but there are some where the VLGA will be seeking more detail,” he said.
The government’s proposal will disappoint those hoping for the principle of “one person one vote” to apply in City of Melbourne elections. Despite its talk of “reinvigorating democratic practices”, the document indicates the City of Melbourne’s “unique” franchise system — which gives two votes to every business versus one vote per resident — would remain unchanged.
Submissions close September 16. The government has also created a short poll to gauge opinions on key reforms in the proposal.