Local Government Legislation Amendment (Rating and Other Matters) Bill 2022
I rise to speak to the Local Government Legislation Amendment (Rating and Other Matters) Bill 2022. Our local councils play such an important role in building local communities and providing essential services. They form an entire level of government and are frequently the ones left picking up the pieces and supporting communities when state and federal governments fail them. This bill is responding to recommendations from the Ombudsman’s 2021 Investigation into How Local Councils Respond to Ratepayers in Financial Hardship. The Ombudsman found that while all councils had a hardship policy they varied greatly between councils, resulting in disparate outcomes for different residents. This inconsistency was heightened by a lack of guidance from the state government, who had effectively left councils to their own devices on hardship policies. The reforms in this bill are designed to rectify this and put some hardship provisions into legislation, which the Greens welcome.
However, what we do not welcome is the way the government has embarked upon and framed this reform. We know that our local councils have been at the forefront of supporting their communities, especially during the pandemic. They pivoted rapidly to providing material support to their communities, empowered their health and community care teams to be available to help with the broader public health campaign and stood with some of the most vulnerable members of their communities, advocating for their needs when no-one else would. I think of the City of Hume’s work especially in my electorate, but I know of so many councils that went above and beyond to support their residents throughout some of the hardest times in the pandemic. However, the government does not seem to have recognised that and instead has chosen to misrepresent this vital sector yet again.
In the second-reading speech for this bill the then Minister for Local Government said:
Some councils have clearly improved their practices as a result of the pandemic, but overall, the local government sector has fallen behind other sectors in the compassionate and proportionate treatment of those who are facing financial difficulties.
Honestly, this is such an insult to the hardworking people in local government. This is a deliberate mischaracterisation of a sector that I know work so long and hard to look after their communities, and these days they are doing so in an increasingly challenging environment and with limited resources, largely due to ongoing cost shifting and funding cuts from the state government.
The majority of councils, if not all, have hardship policies and provisions in place. Officers work very hard to ensure that accommodation is made for those unable to pay their rates in a timely way and have developed compassionate pathways that respond to these issues. The Municipal Association of Victoria says that these reforms are too little too late. Councils have been asking for guidance from the state government for years, yet the government has been largely silent since the passage of its Local Government Act 2020. And after the Ombudsman’s report all councils used the report as a basis to rework their hardship policies, meaning many policies have already been improved and rolled out to residents.
While the government has tried to suggest that councils are frequently taking drastic measures to recover unpaid rates, deploying debt collectors and seizing property, the evidence on the ground suggests otherwise. In her investigation the Ombudsman found that in 2018–19, 28 properties were sold for debt collection, a minuscule 0.00001 percent of all properties valued, and just 7000 cases involved debt collectors, approximately 0.002 percent of all properties valued. So while the Greens welcome measures to help support residents in hardship, it is disappointing that councils have once again been thrown under the bus by this state government and held out to be the villain.
What is striking from this bill and the way that it has been introduced is that the state government seems to have no vision or overarching strategy to support local government beyond repeatedly cost shifting onto councils while cutting their funding, scapegoating problems onto them and not taking responsibility themselves. Early this year, for example, we saw the government attempt to pass responsibility for public housing maintenance onto local councils by exempting itself from paying rates on social housing properties. And next sitting week we are debating a bill that appears to push responsibility for addressing the combustible cladding crisis onto councils as well, a crisis that is very much the responsibility of the state government. The rate cap has had a detrimental impact on the local government sector. It suppresses wage and jobs growth and forces councils to cut overdue services, and it has had a particularly negative impact on the sector’s predominantly female workforce—a rate cap this state government introduced onto local councils.
We have also seen democracy at the local level attacked by this government. Under previous local government minister Somyurek, the government succeeded in gerrymandering local electorates by doing away with more democratic, multimember ward structures in favour of a single-member ward for all councils. The shift to a single-member ward will stack our local councils with the major parties and shut out smaller parties and independents. It is an extremely poor model that has clearly been introduced to try and reduce the impact of Greens and independent councillors. And we are still waiting on the promised donations reforms at a local government level.
The last few weeks in Victorian politics have been dominated by issues of integrity and dodgy donations. The risk of donations corrupting decision-makers is not limited to state politics but is also a risk in local government. We have seen this all too clearly through IBAC’s investigation into Casey council. For property developers in particular, councillors who have the power to make lucrative planning decisions that could hand them millions in profits are the perfect target for dodgy donations. The gambling industry is a prolific donor, giving over a million dollars to the major parties ahead of the last state election to help entrench their profitable yet hugely damaging poker machines throughout the community. Many local councils have been leading the fight against poker machines in their communities, knowing the damage they do. But without a ban on political donations from the industry, all that important work can be undone.
Yet the government has failed over the last eight years to tighten donation rules to limit what can be given to local councillors and candidates. It keeps saying it needs to wait for IBAC, but that is just an excuse. We do not need IBAC to tell us about the corrupting influence of donations—the evidence is writ large. New South Wales and Queensland have banned property developer and gambling industry donations from all levels of government. The least we can do today is to demonstrate a commitment to integrity in our politics by banning these dodgy donations from local government.
I also have amendments to lower the voting age to 16 for local government elections. These amendments represent a chance to genuinely engage young people in our democratic system, as I said when I introduced these same reforms back in 2020. Young people are now more than ever concerned about their future. Climate change, mental health, education and the cost of living are just some of the big issues that young people are raising. They are engaging in our democracy and demanding change. They are working, volunteering, leading in their communities and contributing to their local areas, yet our leaders often let them down and do not represent their interests. Many young people are already politically active, taking to the streets in protest about the future that they see us creating for them and demanding a better one. They should, as many of us do, have a voice in choosing the representatives who make the decisions that will shape their communities—and what better place to start this reform than in the local government sector?
With a new minister, perhaps now is the right time to revisit our vision and strategy for the local government sector. The Greens have proposed amendments to improve local democracy and strengthen our local government sector, redressing the need for political donations, increasing voter participation and bringing back democracy to elections, and I wish to circulate my amendments now.
Greens amendments circulated by Dr RATNAM pursuant to standing orders.
Dr RATNAM: In conclusion, the Greens will be supporting this bill, but it does represent a missed opportunity for more important reform for the local government sector and strengthening of our democracy. I look forward to speaking in further detail to my amendments in the committee stage, and I urge everyone to support those amendments.