Bill Speech: Local Government Bill 2018

Ros SPENCE (Yuroke) (12:55:33) — I am very pleased to make a contribution on the Local Government Bill 2018. I notice that the Minister for Local Government is at the table and I thank her for all of the work that she has done in this review. At the outset I will just say I am not as pessimistic as the member for Mildura. I do think that the provisions in this bill will be for the good of the community. I am sure that time will prove me right and him wrong, so I look forward to that.

This bill will replace the Local Government Act 1989 with a modern, principle-based legislative framework requiring good governance, transparency, accountability and sound financial management. While councils will have greater autonomy to perform their roles, they will be required to exercise their powers and functions in accordance with the principles described in the bill. Among other things, the principles require a council to act lawfully, to give priority to the best outcomes for their community, to engage with their community and to cooperate with other governments and public bodies.

Since the creation of the Local Government Act 1989 there have been around 100 amending acts, resulting in thousands of individual amendments to its provisions. The result is an act that is poorly drafted, unclear and even contradictory in some places. The Local Government Act 1989 is being replaced to bring it into the 21st century to give communities the strong, accountable and efficient local councils they deserve.

The bill gives effect to the review of the Local Government Act 1989, which commenced in 2015 in response to calls from the local government sector and the community for act reform. In August 2015 the then Minister for Local Government announced the terms of reference and formed the advisory committee, of which I was appointed chair. That committee was tasked with providing advice on the review. The terms of reference for the review were to improve local government transparency and create a more contemporary, accessible act that meets the current and future needs of Victorian communities. The review of the act was to consider all aspects of the current act with a view to updating the legislation to provide clear guidance to the sector and the community.

The advisory committee members brought a wealth of experience in both local government and government administration at the highest level. As chair of that committee, I would like to acknowledge the advisory committee members, talk a little bit about the role of the committee and thank those members for the many hours of work that they contributed and the huge amount of knowledge and information they shared during this process. The advisory committee members were Dr Kathy Alexander, former CEO of Melbourne City Council, who was on the committee until March 2016; Kay Rundle, former CEO of the City of Port Phillip, Greater Geelong and Maribyrnong city councils; Nicholas Reece, principal fellow, Melbourne School of Government and senior executive in chancellery at the University of Melbourne and Melbourne city councillor; Mary Delahunty, councillor at Glen Eira City Council; David Clark, councillor at Pyrenees Shire Council; and Colleen Furlanetto, councillor at Strathbogie shire from March 2016; Dr Ken Coghill, associate professor and former member of Parliament; and Peter Brown, former CEO of Moreland City Council. These committee members certainly brought significant experience and knowledge to the review process, individually and collectively.

The role of the committee was to provide advice to the minister throughout the consultation process and to help ensure that communities, councils and the government worked together to improve governance and cut red tape, helping local government reduce costs for local ratepayers. In doing so, they worked very closely with the department representatives, who I also thank for their role in the process.

So what was this consultation that was carried out? From 2015 to 2018 the development of the Local Government Bill 2018 was informed by extensive engagement with council CEOs, mayors, councillors, senior staff, peak organisations, ratepayers and community members. In addition to the advisory committee, all of these participants can take considerable credit for having shaped these reforms. There were four stages to the engagement process, the final stage being the release of the exposure draft bill. Stage 1 of the review included a discussion paper and reform ideas. The discussion paper was released in September 2015. It was the beginning of the Local Government Act review consultation process, and the beginning of a conversation with the sector and the community about the legislative framework that governs local government in Victoria.

Before the break I was making my contribution and focusing on the advisory committee for the review, of which I was chair, as well as the consultation process and the role of the committee throughout that process. Others have commented on the provisions within the bill, but these are the matters I will be focusing on. I had thanked the members of the advisory committee and acknowledged the great work that they did, and I had started to comment on stage 1 of the review process, which involved the discussion paper, and that is where I will continue.

The discussion paper identified issues with the Local Government Act 1989. It invited ideas on options to reform all aspects of the legislative framework. Some 348 submissions were received responding to the discussion paper. Reform ideas were also developed via the advisory committee through background papers, community forums, technical working groups and meetings with peak council and ratepayer associations. During this stage the advisory committee members attended a number of community meetings and fed back into the review the issues and ideas that were shared at these meetings across the state. The committee also considered each of the 348 submissions that were received, and they worked with the department to identify themes and emerging issues. This process helped inform stage 2 of the consultation process, being the directions paper.

The directions paper was titled Act for the Future: Directions for a New Local Government Act. It was released in June 2016 and outlined the key reforms proposed to develop the legislative framework for Victorian local government for the future. Councils and their communities were invited to have their say on the proposed reforms and contribute their ideas for a contemporary, clear and comprehensive Local Government Act which supports councils as they
meet future challenges and better serves a new generation of Victorians.

There were 333 submissions to the directions paper. These were received online, by email and in hard copy form. Responses to the reform directions were also provided at community forums with mayors, council CEOs and community members. In July and August 2016 consultations on the directions paper were held in nine locations: Frankston, Kyneton, Traralgon, Ararat, Benalla, Anglesea, Mildura, Werribee and the Melbourne CBD. At each location there were listening posts and community forums, and workshops were held involving mayors, councillors and council staff, including CEOs, from surrounding municipalities.

During this stage the local government review website provided information and participatory forums for both the sector and the public on all the issues and consultative documents related to the review. These included the discussion paper, the directions paper and all submissions received to both of these; a range of background papers from technical experts; fact sheets; summary documents; and advice from a series of technical working groups comprising sector specialists. Some 462 individuals registered to receive information about the review, and there were 26 500 visits to the website. The discussion paper was downloaded 1950 times. The directions paper was downloaded 692 times. In addition 130 individuals completed an online survey on the key reforms proposed in the directions paper.

Stage 3 of the review process occurred in 2017 and involved targeted consultation to inform the exposure draft bill. It involved consultation with technical working groups, peak ratepayer groups, key stakeholders on specific issues, council peak organisations and newly elected councillors. This led to stage 4 of the process, the exposure draft of the Local Government Bill 2017, which was released publicly for consultation on 12 December 2017. The government received 190 submissions in response to the exposure draft bill, and these were used as a basis to finalise the bill prior to its introduction into Parliament.

This, in short, is one of the most extensive consultation processes undertaken on a piece of government legislation, spanning over three years. The extent of this engagement provides a high level of confidence that the changes will strengthen the sector and improve the reputation and capacity of councils.

The advisory committee provided terrific input to this review through their individual and collective knowledge, expertise and desire to improve the legislative framework governing local government. I extend my thanks, again, and my appreciation to Dr Kathy Alexander, Kay Rundle, Nicholas Reece, Mary Delahunty, David Clark, Colleen Furlanetto, Dr Ken Coghill and Peter Brown, the former CEO of Moreland City Council. Your efforts and your contributions to the development of this bill are greatly appreciated. I congratulate both the former and current ministers for local government on the work that they have done, and I commend the bill to the house.