City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017 | Samantha Dunn

City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017

I rise to speak on the City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017...
Thursday, June 8, 2017 - 2:00pm
Samantha Dunn

Ms DUNN (Eastern Metropolitan) — I rise to speak on the City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017. The bill does three things: it reconstitutes the council from October 2017, with three three-councillor wards and one two-councillor ward to be delivered by an order in council; secondly, it gets rid of the directly elected mayor and deputy mayor model; and thirdly, it provides for councillors to elect from amongst their own number a mayor for a period of 24 months.

The Greens applaud the use of the citizens jury process in informing the future of the City of Greater Geelong. We would like to see this model whereby an informed citizenry is presented with an opportunity to consider all options, their positives and negatives, extended to other initiatives, particularly with respect to planning of major infrastructure and local communities. An immediate example comes to mind of where this would be helpful. The government, we see, is ramming through the West Gate tunnel proposal with only 30 days for the 10 000-page environment effects statement to be considered. A citizens jury comprising residents from across the western suburbs could be provided with the opportunity to really understand the impacts of the project on their communities. If they did, they would no doubt come out rejecting it due to its impact and its creation of more traffic, leading to more dependence on motor vehicles and not solving the transport or pollution problems of the west.

But I return to the bill before us today. With respect to the reform of the City of Greater Geelong, the Greens support the abolition of a directly elected mayor and deputy mayor model. The drift towards the failed City of Melbourne model was deleterious to democratic representation and good governance. Certainly we saw that in its extreme at the City of Greater Geelong, which resulted of course in the dismissal of that council. We did see some very good councillors dismissed along with councillors who had exhibited very poor behaviour. It was unfortunate that those councillors, who were very good community based councillors, had to go along with their colleagues who may not be described quite as generously.

In terms of the Melbourne City Council model, it is not a truly democratically elected council. Forty per cent of the voter roll are either non-residents that own property in the city or businesses registered in that city. For a reason unclear to residents in Melbourne, voters in this voter bloc — that are either not natural persons or not residents in the city — get two votes each. There has never been a satisfactory explanation of this bizarre arrangement. Due to this unfair and unexplained double-voting power, this bloc represents more than 50 per cent of eligible votes. As a result, the City of Melbourne electoral roll is likely the most gender-imbalanced male electoral roll in the country and the wealthiest electoral roll in the country.

Furthermore, electoral candidacy requires establishing a presence on the electoral roll, but the City of Melbourne is the only council in the country where the majority of councillors live outside the municipality. This is a distortion of true democratic representation. The direct election of mayor and deputy mayor only further distorts this situation. For example, in the City of Melbourne the Liberal Team Doyle ticket received 44.6 per cent of first preferences for the mayoral and deputy mayoral positions in the 2016 local government elections. It is no secret that most of this vote for Team Doyle was from the more than 50 per cent of votes that were cast neither by natural persons nor by voters that live inside the electorate. When it came to the election of councillors, the Liberal Team Doyle group received 27 116 votes, representing 37.5 per cent of formal votes cast. With the countback triggered by the highly controversial removal of Brooke Wandin, a fourth Team Doyle councillor was declared elected. As such, the total Team Doyle votes on council is 6 out of 11. In other words a Liberal majority was sent to town hall yet was only elected by around 40 per cent of the votes, many of which were cast by businesses or people that do not live in the City of Melbourne. This is an abrogation of democracy; it should be wiped out, not copied in other places such as Geelong.

The other issue with the direct election of a mayor and deputy mayor is that campaigning for those positions requires very deep pockets. This is out of the reach of ordinary citizens. The only prospective candidates are therefore those that are backed by big business and are fronts for major parties. We have seen that in Melbourne and we have seen that in the past in Geelong.

Hence it is a positive that the reforms in this bill are steering the City of Greater Geelong away from the City of Melbourne model and into alignment with local governments throughout the rest of the state. However, there is one major issue with the way multimember wards have been formed. From November 2015 to March 2016 the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) conducted an electoral representation review of Greater Geelong City Council. Following provisions in the Local Government Act 1989 the review considered the number of councillors and the electoral structure of the council. The review included two rounds of consultation with the Geelong community.

It is worth at this point reflecting on the role of the VEC. It is an independent and impartial statutory authority. Its mission statement is to act with impartiality and integrity. It is a cornerstone of ensuring the health of the democratic system in this state. It has in-house expertise on democratic processes and forms, and its advice should be held in profound respect. If the VEC is ignored, democracy can be corrupted through acts such as gerrymandering. Yet as this bill shows, the Minister for Local Government has abandoned advice from the VEC.

Following its comprehensive review process the VEC recommended to the state government that the City of Greater Geelong should comprise four wards: three wards of three councillors and one ward of two councillors. The sparsely populated northern ward would receive two councillors and the other wards would have three councillors. The final report from the citizens jury consultation process that was conducted after the council was sacked indicates that the central ward will only get two councillors and the northern ward will get three councillors.

The fact that the Minister for Local Government dismissed the review recommendation of the VEC was troubling. The Greens are concerned that this is a case of potential ministerial interference in a VEC process, and it would not be the first time. The local government minister has form in this respect. In 2016 the VEC recommended that the Yarra Ranges Shire Council structure change from nine wards with one councillor in each to three wards each with three councillors. This would have improved accountability of councillors to the community, with the performance of each councillor benchmarked against others in their ward. There is no doubt proportional representation is a far better representative model for the community. However, for that particular review the minister rejected the VEC recommendation, and the Yarra Ranges shire remains a council with nine single-member wards. These are worrying precedents of ministerial intervention and should be called out as such.

I want to turn now to the VEC review that I referred to, the 2015–16 Greater Geelong City Council electoral representation review, and firstly go to what guides the VEC in relation to their approach. Essentially they are delivering on obligations included within the Local Government Act:

The purpose of a representation review is to recommend—

… the electoral structure that provides 'fair and equitable representation for the persons who are entitled to vote at a general election of the Council …

The matters considered for review are the number of councillors and the electoral structure of the council — that is, whether the council should be unsubdivided or subdivided into wards and, if subdivided into wards, the number of councillors in each of those wards.

When the VEC conducts its review it is based on three main principles. It is ensuring the number of voters represented by each councillor is within 10 per cent of the average number of voters per councillor for that municipality. It takes a consistent statewide approach to the total number of councillors and ensures communities of interest are as fairly represented as possible.

In relation to this recommendation the VEC recommended that the Greater Geelong City Council consist of 11 councillors elected from three three-councillor wards and one two-councillor ward. The electoral structure designated is what it calls option A in its report, and I will talk to that a bit more later.

In considering the electoral structure for Geelong the VEC looked at the communities of interest, consisting of people who share a range of common concerns such as geography, economic or cultural associations; the longevity of the structure with an aim of keeping voter numbers per councillor within that 10 per cent tolerance level; geographic factors such as size and topography; the number of voters in potential wards, as wards with many voters often have large numbers of candidates, which can lead to an increase in informal votes; and clear ward boundaries.

In relation to this particular review the VEC developed its recommendations based on a range of information. It did internal research specifically relating to the municipality, looking at Australian Bureau of Statistics voter statistics from the electoral roll and other state and local government datasets, and forecasts provided by informed decisions. It drew on the VEC's experience conducting previous electoral representation reviews of local councils and used its expertise in mapping, demography and local government. It also of course had a public submission process and took careful consideration of all the input provided by the public in both written and verbal form throughout the period of that review. It also took advice from consultants with extensive experience in local government.

In terms of the preferred option it determined that the best representative model for the Greater Geelong City Council was what it called option A, the four-ward model: three three-councillor wards and one two-councillor ward.

The VEC, in handing down its report, noted:

The VEC's preferred option responded to submissions that described the municipality as naturally falling into four distinct areas: the northern suburbs; the suburban centre including the CBD; southern residential and semi-rural areas; and the Bellarine Peninsula, grouping Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove together.

Because it has larger wards than the current structure, option A accommodated the uneven growth expected in specific parts of the municipality. The model kept suburbs and townships intact, and used strong and clearly identifiable boundaries such as the Geelong Ring Road, separating the northern suburbs around Corio from the suburban centre and the CBD.

The Barwon River separates what the Victorian Electoral Commission called 'the Windermere, Kardinia and Brownbill wards'. The report states:

Under this model, the proposed northern Windermere ward had two councillors while the more densely populated and growing wards to the south, centre and east of the municipality were served by three councillors each.

In considering the range of models in relation to option B, the VEC considered that that divided communities of interest and so rejected that as a preferred model because it would see the Armstrong Creek region divided over two wards and also Belmont and Grovedale divided.

In relation to option C, there was concern around the larger number of councillors required and the flow-on concern that that would be detrimental to direct and localised representation and because of that would have the ability to increase the number of informal votes.

In relation to option D, which was for single-member wards, the VEC highlighted that that was vulnerable to population growth, so therefore rejected that as the best way forward for Geelong.

I want to turn now to the Geelong Citizens Jury. I thank the Minister for Local Government in the other place, Ms Hutchins, because she was kind enough to invite me to meet some members of the citizens jury yesterday at a function at Parliament House. It was terrific to touch base with community members who are very passionate about their region and to talk about some of the issues they have and some of their concerns in relation to returning democracy to Geelong. Certainly it is a community that has endured some long-lasting issues in relation to the disastrous introduction of a directly elected mayor and deputy mayor model to them.

I want to turn to the jury in its consideration of the question: 'Our council was dismissed; how do we want to be democratically represented by a future council?'. It was in that that the jury made some recommendations around how the mayor would be elected, the number of councillors, whether the municipality should be subdivided or divided into wards and, if it is divided into wards, what that ward structure would look like. The minister made a number of commitments to the jury in relation to its decision-making around that. I would just note as part of that that it is important when government makes commitments to communities that they take into account that their bill needs to go before the scrutiny of the upper house where things may alter as part of the process.

What is a little bit alarming in this response to the citizens jury is in relation to the mayor being elected by the council from among the councillors and whether they should serve a two-year term.

Mr Dalidakis interjected.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Morris) — Order! Mr Dalidakis, this has been quite a calm debate. I would like it to continue that way.

Ms DUNN — Thank you, Acting President. There is no doubt that the jury was divided in its support for whether they would have a directly elected mayor or not. The end result is of course that they eventually landed on not having a directly elected mayor. However, I do note in the report the response that this support does not prevent a directly elected mayor model being introduced to the Geelong council in the future. That is a matter that concerns the Greens. We think it is good to see the end of a directly elected mayor model, and I would hate to think that this chamber would have to consider this issue again.

In terms of what the citizens jury recommended, they talked about four wards. The one thing that was really an important consideration for that community, and particularly the Bellarine community, was around the naming of the wards. Certainly the Greens would support that community in their aspirations. It was really clear that the Bellarine community have an enormous attachment to sense of place and are enormously attached to naming their ward the Bellarine ward, and we would completely support them in relation to that matter. In fact I think it is really important to have a connection to sense of place in as many ways as possible.

What is interesting to note in relation to the response to the citizens jury is that there was only one aspirational recommendation that was not supported by government, and that was to prohibit developer financial and in-kind contributions to candidates and council staff, consistent with other states' legislation. It is disappointing that this element was not supported. We know that donations distort decision-making, and I think in relation to that particular matter the jury was spot on.

As the house has heard in my contribution to date, the Greens are very supportive of the VEC and its role in determining the fairest and most just distribution and representation models for Geelong, and with that we entered discussions with the government around this matter. We are very pleased to have received correspondence from the Minister for Local Government, Ms Hutchins, addressed to me, which states:

As you are aware the Victorian government is committed to implementing the practical recommendations of the Geelong Citizens Jury.

I have considered the request of the Greens to not proceed with the jury recommendations concerning the ward structure and instead adopt an earlier recommendation of the VEC.

Following the discussion with representatives of the jury on Wednesday I am prepared to agree with your request.

Should the City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2017 be passed by Parliament in its current form, I will recommend to the Governor in Council that an order in council be made under section 220Q of the Local Government Act 1989 to alter ward boundaries and names and assign councillors to each ward of the Greater Geelong City Council.

This recommendation will be made in accordance with the proposed electoral structure recommended by the Victorian Electoral Commission in its electoral representation review final report dated 16 March 2016 and shown in the attached map.

That map clearly indicates, as the VEC named it at the time, Windermere ward, consisting of two councillors; Brownbill ward, consisting of three councillors; Kardinia ward, consisting of three councillors; and the Bellarine ward, consisting of three councillors.

I thank the government for their cooperation in relation to that. I think it is a good outcome for the people of the City of Greater Geelong. There is no doubt that proportional representation is a far better model when it comes to representative democracy. I also once again thank the generosity of the jury yesterday in discussions with them. The Greens will be supporting this bill, with those assurances from the Minister for Local Government in relation to the make-up of those ward boundaries and the representative model.