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In Parliament


Local Government (South Gippsland Shire Council) Bill 2019 - Second Reading

   Wednesday, 19 June 2019
Mr T SMITH (Kew) (09:39:34): We on this side of the house support this bill. I move: That the debate be now adjourned. Motion agreed to and debate adjourned. Ordered that debate be adjourned until later this day.

Mr T SMITH (Kew) (11:43:46): It is, I suppose, an unfortunate situation we find ourselves in today, but it is the coalition’s position that we will support the government’s decision to dismiss the South Gippsland Shire Council. This council has been dysfunctional for quite some time. I appreciated very much the briefing that I received with the member for Gippsland South and the Leader of the Opposition in the other place yesterday from former Justice Vincent, who chaired the commission of inquiry into South Gippsland Shire Council. This report has only been tabled this morning in the Parliament. I understand that there are some time frame constraints and that is why it was brought forward from the original plan to table this on Thursday and to introduce the bill on Thursday, but I am not quibbling over that. It is simply a fact that I have not had the opportunity to go through this report in the detail I would have liked. But from the briefing that I received from former Justice Vincent—and I was very impressed by the thoroughness of the briefing, and I put on record my thanks to Minister Somyurek’s office for facilitating that in the speedy way that that occurred from Monday night onwards—we have no qualms with what has been proposed. We have no qualms at all with the time frame. It is proposed that this council will be under administrators until October 2021. Initially I raised concerns with regard to why it was not simply dismissed until the council elections, which are due next year, but Mr Vincent essentially suggested that this council requires more time to get its act together. Now, if I can read from the executive summary of Mr Vincent’s report: A Municipal Monitor was appointed in June 2018 to advise and provide assistance to the Council on a range of matters including meeting procedures and decision-making, management of confidential information, interactions between councillors and between councillors and staff and any other governance issues identified. The Municipal Monitor provided a final report to the Minister for Local Government (the Minister) on 21 March 2019 in which he noted the Council was not able to provide good government to the municipality, due to the behaviours of, and conflict between councillors. He therefore recommended the Minister consider suspending the Council and require the councillors to undertake governance training. The minister subsequently appointed a commission of inquiry, which commenced on 21 May 2019. In this report Mr Vincent and his fellow commissioners observed that: There has been a high level of tension, discord and conflict between the councillors elected in 2016. The motivations for individuals involved are irrelevant to this basic fact. He went on to say: This conflict has had a detrimental impact on decision-making by councillors. This is both in relation to long term strategic decisions critical to the sustainability of the Council as well as decisions on potentially controversial issues. Most importantly: The resignations of four councillors for reasons associated with the conflict and their replacement by new councillors, along with replacement of another councillor who resigned for different reasons, means the Council as presently constituted does not reflect a high level of community support when considering votes cast in the 2016 election. While of itself this would not justify intervention, it does weaken the current Council’s legitimacy as a truly representative body. In our view— that is the commissioners’ view— it can legitimately be taken into account against the background of ongoing conflict and disharmony on the Council that is inextricably linked to four of those resignations. It is our view that the underlying tensions between councillors and poor decision-making process are continuing. Hence it was the decision of the commissioners to recommend dismissal. My friend the member for Gippsland South has kept me apprised of developments in the council over the last couple of months. There was a community meeting where some 400 locals turned up and expressed their desire that this council be dismissed. I do not think anyone in this place wants to sack democratically elected councillors—or anyone else for that matter—without serious cause to do so in the public interest, and I am persuaded this piece of work by a very eminent former judge has ensured that I have confidence that what the government has decided to do here is actually in the best interests of the people of South Gippsland. I am a former mayor and councillor. Councils are very important to the provision of services in Victoria, but they should never be platforms for councillors to behave in reckless and, frankly, stupid ways. This complete dysfunction that we have seen in South Gippsland is yet another litany of clown hall behaviours that ratepayers around Victoria are absolutely sick to death of. Councils, as I said, perform a very important role: local service provision, infrastructure and the like. They implement well over 100 acts of this Parliament. But just because councils are elected and have some mandate to govern in the areas for which they are given responsibility by this place, it does not give them the opportunity—or does not give them the right, shall I say—to behave in a way that is detrimental to the public good but most importantly to what they are constitutionally there to do. I will say very briefly that the new local government bill that the minister flagged on Monday will be introduced sometime later this year and the reform paper that he put out certainly provided aspects of bipartisanship that we would be happy to support. But I would like to see a far stronger response from this government on specifically curtailing the opportunity for councillors to spend ratepayers money on campaigns for which they have absolutely zero constitutional responsibility, whether that be advocating for nuclear disarmament or the republic or any other global or national political issue. They may well have those views and they can express them as much as any other citizen of this country, but they should not be able—in fact they must not be able—to use ratepayers money to further their own niche issues. The Australia Day controversy, particularly in inner urban councils of recent times, has certainly shown the disconnect from what mainstream Melburnians—indeed Victorians—want to see from their local councils, which is focusing on rubbish, roads and keeping their rates as low as possible. I make this point very clearly to councils around Victoria: stick to the basics, stick to your knitting and be cognisant of what you are there to do, which is to provide services to your local community. Do not interfere in national or global social or political issues. Do not behave in a way, such as we have seen here in South Gippsland, that is reckless, that is, frankly, silly and that has ensured that the state government has stepped in to dismiss them. I will wind up my comments there because I understand the member for South Gippsland wishes to make a contribution but, again, I support this bill and I hope for its speedy passage through this place.