City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017
Ms HUTCHINS (Minister for Local Government) — I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Speech as follows incorporated into Hansard under standing orders:
This bill will amend the City of Greater Geelong Act 1993 to reform the method of election of the mayor of Greater Geelong City Council and alter the constitution of that council, putting into effect recommendations of the Geelong Citizens Jury. It will also reform the election and term of the deputy mayor of the council, and make other consequential amendments relating to the mayor and deputy mayor and the constitution of the council.
In April 2016, the previous council was dismissed by the Parliament of Victoria in response to the findings and recommendations of the independent commission of inquiry into the council. The commission of inquiry concluded that the council had failed to provide good government to the people of Greater Geelong, the leadership of the council was dysfunctional and riven by conflict and there was a deep-seated culture of bullying within the council and its administration. The commission also found a range of organisational failures had contributed to the breakdown of good governance at the council, including a failure by council to provide a safe workplace for its employees.
Administrators were appointed in May 2016 to implement eight recommendations from the commission of inquiry that were for council action and to act as the council until the next general election in 2017.
The government committed to consult the community about the future constitution of its council during the debate of the legislation to dismiss the council. At my request, my department commissioned the newDemocracy Foundation, an independent non-partisan research organisation specialising in innovations in democracy, to design and oversee a citizens jury process to make recommendations to the government on the future democratic representation of the council.
The Geelong Citizens Jury was a randomly selected group of 100 residents who were representative of Greater Geelong in terms of age, gender and geography. They were asked to consider the question: ‘Our council was dismissed. How do we want to be democratically represented by a future council?’ The jury was asked to provide ‘practical’ recommendations for an electoral structure for the council within the scope of existing Victorian local government legislation in time for the general election of the council in October 2017. The jury was also able to make ‘aspirational’ recommendations outside the scope of existing Victorian legislation, including any ideas to improve local democracy for Greater Geelong.
The jury met and deliberated over four Saturdays between October 2016 and January 2017 to provide its recommendations to government. It considered thousands of inputs, including background information prepared by the department as the commissioning agency and academics from across Australia. The jury further considered nearly 1000 community responses to a values-based survey, written submissions from community members, feedback from a range of public and targeted community workshops, expert and community speakers and other information requested by the jury.
The jury delivered its final report on 21 January 2017 which included 13 recommendations to government. I delivered the Victorian government response to the jury on 18 March 2017. It outlines the government’s level of support for the jury recommendations and what action the government will take to address each recommendation.
Two of the jury recommendations relate to the constitution of the council for the next general election of the council. The jury recommended that the council be constituted by:
a mayor elected by the council from among the councillors (instead of being directly elected by voters) for a two-year term; and
a total of 11 councillors elected across four multi-member wards, comprising the northern region (three councillors), the Bellarine coastal region (three councillors), suburban Geelong (three councillors) and central Geelong (two councillors).
The jury also made 11 other ‘aspirational’ recommendations about how to improve local democracy in Geelong. These include broadcasting council meetings through different media platforms, utilising citizens juries and committees to review council decisions and performance, and enhanced candidate and councillor public information. The government has provided a level of support for the majority of these recommendations, many of which are being considered as part of the current comprehensive review of the Local Government Act 1989.
The government has accepted both jury recommendations for the constitution of the council. This bill will implement those two recommendations, to apply for the general election of the council scheduled for Saturday, 28 October 2017. Specifically, the bill will provide for the following constitution of the council:
a mayor and deputy mayor elected by and from among councillors for a two-year term;
eleven councillors, including the mayor and deputy mayor, elected from four wards as follows:
three wards each consisting of three councillors; and
one ward consisting of two councillors;
provision for an order in council to be made to set ward boundaries for the new electoral structure.
Additionally, the bill will make consequential amendments to the act to support the key changes proposed by the bill to reflect the jury’s recommendations.
The jury’s rationale for its recommendation for a return to a councillor-elected mayor was to support better relationships between the mayor and councillors characterised by greater cohesion and less conflict. The jury reasoned that there would be greater internal support for the mayor if elected by and from among fellow councillors. The jury also sought to make the position less susceptible to populism and improve the understanding of council operations.
The jury argued that an 11-councillor multi-member ward structure would provide broader representation of the diversity of local needs and interests in each area, increase the accessibility of voters to councillors, avoid deadlocks when voting on issues and encourage collaboration between councillors. The jury’s recommendation for multi-member wards is consistent with the recommendations from the commission of Inquiry.
In giving effect to the jury’s recommendations, this bill will make a significant contribution towards restoring good governance in Geelong and support the city on its way to reaching its full potential. Without this bill, there is a serious risk of a continuation of the past dysfunction and poor governance at the council. The current directly elected mayor model for Geelong was a disastrous experiment that failed the people of Greater Geelong. Continuing with this failed model is an unacceptable situation. Geelong must have, and deserves, first-class local governance.
We have seen time and time again that there is no ‘silver bullet’ for a council structure for Geelong that provides for both good governance and democratic representation. However the Victorian government is confident that the changes recommended by a representative and informed cross-section of the Geelong community will provide the best opportunity to address the dysfunction seen at the council in the past, improve democratic representation for the people of Greater Geelong and strengthen good governance at the council.
This has been a groundbreaking approach to designing a council structure — no other community in Australia has had this opportunity. Importantly, this bill demonstrates that the Greater Geelong community has been heard about how they want their next council to represent them. When any government consults the community, it is important that it listens to what the community says. The changes proposed by this bill directly reflect what a random but representative section of the community said about how it wants to elect its next council after a careful consideration of information about different council structures.
The jury deliberated over many hours to find common ground to respond to the challenge put to them. The jury can and should be proud of its work which was done in the best interests of the Greater Geelong community. I thank them for their commitment and their work which is at the centre of this bill.
The jury now expects that the Parliament of Victoria and Greater Geelong’s future councillors will listen to their recommendations and put aside individual and partisan agendas to support a successful and bright future for Victoria’s second-largest city.
I commend the bill to the house.
Debate adjourned on motion of Mr CLARK (Box Hill).
Ms HUTCHINS (Minister for Local Government) tabled following statement in accordance with Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006:
In accordance with section 28 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, (the ‘charter’), I make this statement of compatibility with respect to the City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017.
In my opinion, the City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017, as introduced to the Legislative Assembly, is compatible with human rights as set out in the charter. I base my opinion on the reasons outlined in this statement.
The purpose of this bill is to amend the method of election of the mayor of the Greater Geelong City Council and the constitution of the council to provide that the mayor and deputy mayor be elected by and from among the elected councillors for a two year term and the council be constituted of eleven councillors representing four wards.
Human rights issues
Human rights protected by the charter that are relevant to the bill
Section 18 of the charter establishes a right for an individual to participate in the conduct of public affairs, to vote and be elected at state and municipal elections, and to have access to the Victorian public service and public office, without discrimination.
Section 15 of the charter protects freedom of expression which includes the freedom to hold and express a political opinion. Section 16 of the charter protects the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association including for political purposes.
The bill is relevant to the right to vote and be elected at municipal elections and the right to take part in public life, and the complementary rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
Are the relevant charter rights limited by the bill?
The right to participate in public affairs (section 18) is a broad concept, which embraces the exercise of governmental power by all arms of government at all levels. The right to be elected ensures that eligible voters have a free choice of candidates in an election, and as with the right to vote, the right to occupy public office is not conferred on all Victorians; it is limited to eligible persons where the criteria and processes for appointment, promotion, suspension and dismissal are objective, reasonable and non-discriminatory.
Clause 6 provides that the mayor of the Greater Geelong City Council (council) must be elected by the councillors to be the mayor. While this change to the council’s electoral structure impacts the way the mayor is elected, it does not remove the right of people in the City of Greater Geelong to elect their council representatives. The election of the mayor by freely elected councillors is a representative, independent, fair, lawful, reasonable and democratic process. The public are still participating in the election of the mayor through chosen representatives. The councillors and mayor remain electorally accountable to the public. Therefore, the right to take part in public life under section 18 of the charter is not limited.
The bill at the same time also promotes the right to take part in public life. It gives effect to a mayoral election model that was representatively chosen by the City of Greater Geelong community. It provides the opportunity for any of the elected councillors to be appointed mayor and reduces the term from four years to two years, providing for more councillors to be appointed to the role. The move to having 11 councillors representing four wards also enhances representation, voter accessibility to councillors and the opportunity for community participation in council electoral and governing processes. Similarly, the complementary rights of freedom of expression (section 15) and right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (section 16) are promoted by the bill to the extent that it enhances the opportunity for public debate, assembly and association.
Is any limit on relevant rights by the bill reasonable and justified under section 7(2)?
If the bill is a limit on the rights protected under sections 15, 16 and 18 of the charter by requiring a person to be elected as a councillor at the council general election in order to be eligible to be mayor for the council and by removing the ability for voters to directly elect a candidate as mayor, the limitations are reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society under section 7(2) of the charter.
The purpose of the limitations is to give effect to the recommendation of the Geelong Citizens Jury (the jury) that the mayor be elected by the council from among the councillors for a two-year term. Consultation in Geelong on the most appropriate mayoral model for the Geelong council has been evenly divided between a councillor-elected mayor and a directly elected mayor.
The jury recommended the mayor be elected by the council, after many hours of deliberation and consideration of the merits of both mayoral models, on the basis that this model would be less susceptible to populism and provide:
better relationships between the mayor and the councillors;
greater internal support for the role of mayor;
a more cohesive unit with less conflict between the mayor and councillors; and
a mayor with a greater understanding of council operations.
The former Greater Geelong City Council was dismissed following a commission of inquiry report detailing a number of failures of governance structures at the council. In particular a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, prevalence of narrow sectional interests prevailing over collective decision-making and serious behavioural and conduct issues by councillors and senior staff, that all impact on delivery of good government in the municipality.
It is essential for the restoration of proper governance structures and the development of a positive and productive workplace culture that the mayor represent the electors with probity, integrity and accountability, and in the interests of the community rather than competing sectional or personal interests.
I consider that the bill is compatible with the charter because no human rights are limited or if they are the limitations are reasonable and proportionate. Any limitations strike the correct balance by providing persons the right to take part in public life and ensuring the mayor performs to appropriate standards of probity, integrity and in the public interest.
Natalie Hutchins, MP
Minister for Local Government