Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (15:54): I rise today to speak on the Local Government Bill 2019. There is no doubt that change and accountability are needed at the local government level. Our communities are growing rapidly, and the challenges faced by council grow with them. Councils are constrained by an act which was originally set in 1989, with amendment upon amendment creating a mountain of red tape.
I rose to speak in support of the Local Government Bill 2019, which will strengthen communication with the community and make councils more accountable.
Councils have a direct line to the community. They need to be able to listen and take on board the needs of their communities to advocate for them at a state level. They need to be nimble to deal with new challenges as they arise. In most regards this bill delivers what councils have been asking for. It will strengthen communication with the community and make councils more accountable. Proper planning with community input is a feature of the bill, as is the ability for councils to work together, which may see some streamlining of services and better collaboration on local issues.
It will provide education and training for councillors, teaching them how to advocate for their constituents, how local government should work and what the expectations are in terms of their behaviour and conduct as representatives of their community. Almost every professional industry has a continuous professional development requirement, and local government—and indeed state and federal government—should be no different. How else do we grow and change if we are not aware of new ways of doing things?
The bill attempts to revive our local council environment, but it is not without controversy. I have met with ratepayers associations, and without fail they are very unhappy with the performance of their local councils. In fact they do not think the bill is tough enough on holding councils and councillors accountable. While we agree with them in principle, it is the state government’s responsibility to hold councils to account, but ratepayers should not be feeling they are consistently ignored. They want this bill to be tougher and the penalties for bad behaviour to be stronger. They want councils that work for the ratepayers—and to be fair, you cannot ignore that.
So 85 per cent of this bill is not controversial. It is a little bit soft, but it is a good start. However, the other 15 per cent is controversial. When meeting with councils in the Eastern Metro Region, they were divided, with different views between and even within councils. The only consistency is the inconsistency. Without fail, the sticking point on this piece of legislation is the move to single-member wards for all councils. The exception is councils with large geographical areas and small populations, such as some rural councils where it makes more sense that councillors overlap. Those that already have single wards in place will be unaffected, but multimember wards are generally not happy. Single-member wards give residents direct representation, and councillors will be more accountable to their local communities. They will also need to campaign well and understand the community they represent. It will not be enough to just put your hand up and align yourself to a party. Candidates will need to be active and involved in their communities and put some skin in the game.
As an advocate for fairness and someone who has been elected with a mission in mind, I understand the effort that goes into fighting for fairness and being a voice for a particular community. There is no room for lazy candidates. If you are elected to represent a community, then you must know that community. You must fight for them, advocate for them and not share that responsibility, and too many councillors have complained that they are carrying an unfair share of the load in their multimember ward.
It is disappointing that we have not dealt with the serious issue of donations for influence to councils. We understand the government is doing some work in this area, and we look forward to dealing with this at another time. I will support this bill, and I think it makes an effort at cleaning up the act, which I am led to believe is almost four times the size of the original 1989 bill due to the number of amendments over the last 30 years. It is time we modernised local councils and made them more efficient and accountable. Is the bill perfect? No, but it is a starting point. I commend this bill to the house.