Local Government Amendment (Governance and Integrity) Bill 2024

28 May 2024

I welcome this bill in providing training, including that code of conduct, which will help enable, help train and help improve the conduct of local councillors. Unlike the member for Footscray, who takes in the City of Maribyrnong, I take in the big four councils in the western suburbs, the best of the west let us say. I have got the City of Maribyrnong, I have got Wyndham City Council, I have got Hobsons Bay and I have also got Brimbank. On a regular basis I am meeting with CEOs, I am meeting with councillors and I am meeting with the mayor. It is almost part of the weekly activities that I do in my electorate, and the reason for that is because we are funding or co-funding so many fabulous initiatives within these local government areas that are so important in helping council and enabling council to go ahead and provide services, facilities and sometimes infrastructure sooner rather than later.

That is particularly evident in the City of Wyndham, which is able to dip into a very special fund. I always talk, when I go to the ribbon cuttings in the City of Wyndham – opening things like sporting pavilions and community centres, which I believe I will be going to next week in Truganina – about the Growing Suburbs Fund. The Growing Suburbs Fund is something where Wyndham City Council has been able to receive tens of millions of dollars to help expedite some really important projects like the sporting pavilions and community centres, which do an incredible job in our local community. We bring them online sooner rather than later, and that is a huge benefit for local residents when all levels of government are able to work collaboratively together.

But it fills me with disappointment when I hear about instances that residents may find themselves in with council or where in fact they have watched council meetings, have just been outraged and appalled at the way in which local councillors treat each other and feel that they are not displaying the seriousness which, being in public office, they should be displaying. Since the last round of council elections in 2020 there have been, let us face it, a concerning number of interventions in councils. It is one thing for state government to go ahead and intervene; it is another thing, which this bill goes to, to try to train our councillors to behave better and not be involved in particular conduct that gets them into trouble where we have to intervene, because at the end of the day we do not want to have to intervene in local government. We do have other important things that we would rather be doing with our time. Quite recently I was really concerned to hear that one of our councils in the Laverton electorate had a monitor appointed to it. It was not something that I was particularly happy to hear. I felt disappointed for residents that their local council was not acting in a way in which it should have been. We also heard some disturbing reports from a rural council that ended in them being dismissed.

One of the key areas that this bill is actually seeking to improve is councillor training. Although we would like to think that everyone that runs for council is appropriately trained and has the skills and attributes of someone entering public office should they be elected, the fact of the matter is sometimes they do not, and the least they can do is some training to try and improve their skills and behaviour and be the best possible local councillor they can be, because they are elected for four years. Mayors and deputy mayors are going to be required to undertake additional training as well. I think that is important because the mayor I believe is paid additional money to be the mayor, and therefore they should be upholding a moral code of conduct. They should be behaving; their behaviour should be at the highest standard. Additional training to me seems a no-brainer, and that is what this bill is doing.

This will be required within one month of a councillor being elected to their role, and I think it is really important to put in the timeframe for when they need to undertake that training, because it needs to be within one month. We do not want it to be within 12 months or two years; it needs to be as soon as that councillor is elected, so it is really good to see that timeframe in there. I think this is a really great step towards ensuring that all councillors, whether they are seasoned hands – because some people run every four years and get elected and spend decades on council – or newly elected for the first time, have the skills and have the knowledge needed to understand their role within the local government organisation – it is an important role – as well as their duties and their obligations as elected officials.

As I touched on, it is really pleasing to see that the bill is also going to establish a model councillor code of conduct that must be observed by all councillors. This is going to ensure that all councils have a consistent approach to setting expectations for how their representatives act and most importantly conduct themselves. It is something that has been so strongly supported by the local government sector, with over 71 per cent of responses during consultation being in favour of this. We know it is a problem. We have been told it is a problem consistently, and we are going ahead and doing something about it. This is not just good for councillors, it is also great for the staff that do, and have to, work around them. Importantly, those council staff not only work in the sector but are there to help support the local councillors. Sometimes that gets missed in the behaviour with which local councillors treat the staff around them.

These measures are important, because we also know that it comes down to behaviour. If that was any of us in this place, that type of behaviour that we have heard that some councillors are acting out towards staff would not be tolerated. We have had this sort of behaviour reported in my neck of the woods – I am not going to say under which council. We have had local councillors excuse their poor behaviour as aggressive leadership, which is very, very concerning. Like I said, we have got the best of the west under the seat of Laverton. You know, I have had instances where councillors have talked to me about the kinds of things that have been said to them or the abuse they feel has been inflicted by other councillors. It is really difficult because their only recourse is to simply report it to the Local Government Inspectorate or to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Now we have a moral code of conduct. Councillors know how they need to act themselves and towards staff. That kind of behaviour that I have heard of in the past is not okay, and it is really important to call it out. The introduction of a code of conduct will bind all of the councillors. It will ensure that this kind of behaviour is further deterred and, really, hopefully stamped out.

In the last 35 seconds I have in my contribution I do want to give a big shout-out to the majority of councillors, who do do the right thing. Like I said, I have got the best of the west – I have got the four local government areas – and the majority do the right thing. I also want to give a shout-out to the CEOs I have gotten to know over the years, past and present. They have done a remarkable amount of work to benefit the community, and quite often the community does not see the amount of work that goes in. So a big shout-out to them, but also a big shout-out to the council staff, who usually absolutely love their jobs. They do tireless work for the community and quite often do not get recognised. I commend the bill to the house.