THE state government’s recent move to tighten rules to control councillors and council staff raises some interesting issues, the basic one being: how much control should one level of government have over another?
And secondly, how much control should council bureaucrats have over councillors?
If, for example, federal politicians enacted a law giving them the power to stand down or suspend state MPs, how would the “inferior” state legislature react?
Yet the Andrews government, through Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins, intends to do precisely this with new laws to “strengthen local governance and reduce councillor misconduct”. The legislation received Royal assent in late October.
Local government was already stringently controlled through Part 4 of the Local Government Act and by councillor codes of conduct, also dealt with by the Act. Councillors are also effectively controlled in part by the democratic process and by the government’s power to suspend entire councils who misbehave.
The latest changes appear, to this lay reader anyway, to point to a tightening of bureaucratic council power over the people elected to be councillors. Other statements in the release strengthen this interpretation.
“The Minister for Local Government will receive new powers, including the option to recommend to the Governor in Council that a councillor be stood down if … the councillor has been accused of serious or gross misconduct …
Is it enough for a councillor simply to be “accused” for him or her to be excluded from the chamber for “up to six months”, unable to vote on matters vital in local communities? What if the councillor is later to be found innocent of the accusation? “Oops – sorry.”
As well, “the minister is … empowered to appoint municipal monitors and to issue governance directions to councils”. Mention is also made of “independent councillor conduct panels”. Appointed by who? With what powers?
Such apparently draconian and anti-democratic new controls, now approved to be exercised on the basis of “guilty before being proved guilty” – anathema in English law for half a millennium – extends the indirect power currently wielded by the deplorable Local Government Inspectorate.
A recent case here in the shire prevented a councillor from voting on such a vital issue for several years. The new powers appear to have similar political repercussions: one accusation and you’re unable to vote.
It was a disgraceful example of the inspectorate’s leisurely approach to justice and democracy – it welcomes and acts on complaints that can be made anonymously – and, in the view of many (including this writer), this case should have resulted in an investigation of the inspectorate’s performance and the necessity of its continuing existence.
No doubt the inspectorate slumbers on in a suite of expensive offices somewhere at the top end of town, relaxed as a koala in the comfortable fork of a gum tree.
It appears Ms Hutchins has succumbed to deputations of mayors and “councils, peak bodies and communities”, who have convinced her that the changes were “desperately needed”.
Her own media release of 28 October belies much of what she has had enacted. It concludes: “While overall misconduct among Victoria’s 79 councils is rare, it is vital that our governance frameworks are robust and ready to deal with misconduct.”
What is desperately needed is for Ms Hutchins and the government she serves to respect local government and to expedite its efficient operation by use of the carrot, not the stick.
That would be a refreshing change of direction for the party of local government branch-stackers and deal-doers.