Australia: Inside track: Local Government - Local Government Bill 2019 (Vic)

Last Updated: 5 September 2019
Article by Joseph Monaghan and Ella Clements

Most Read Contributor in Australia, October 2019

Local Government Bill 2019 consultation

The Local Government Bill 2019 will introduce a new, contemporary framework to support and improve Victoria's 79 councils.

The Victorian Government has said that it expects the new legislation will be presented to Parliament in 2019, intended to replace the Local Government Act 1989. If enacted, the Bill is expected to be rolled out in four stages, with the final stage implemented in 2021.

The proposed Bill builds on the reforms presented in the Local Government Bill 2018.

The 2019 Bill proposes the following reforms:

Simplified voter franchise

It is proposed to simplify enrolments to vote in council elections. Under the current legislation the Victorian Electoral Commission creates the Municipal voters' roll by combining the State electoral roll of voters and a list of ratepayer voters which is compiled by councils. A consequence is the duplication of voters on the Municipal voters' roll, the correction of which is a resource demanding task.

The proposed Bill aims to simplify the process and bring council electoral rolls into line with state electoral rolls. Rather than being automatically enrolled to vote, owners and lessees of rateable property will be required to enrol in that municipality if they wish to vote. The proposed changes aim to address inefficiencies in the current system.

Standardised electoral structures

The 2019 Bill aims to ensure consistency in electoral structures. The current legislation allows councils to be constituted in one of five structural models. Under the new regime the option of multi-member wards will be removed, replaced by a model of single member wards (or unsubdivided wards where appropriate, for example, in sparsely populated, geographically large rural councils).

The new model aims to improve accountability and allow members of the community to be better positioned to seek and receive direct representation from their local councillors.

Training

New mandatory training requirements are proposed to be introduced for councillors and election candidates. Training for election candidates will focus on ensuring prospective councillors have a strong understanding of what is expected of councillors, including a greater awareness of the major strategic decision-making requirements of the role.
The aim of this amendment is to improve competency, skills and transparency.

Donation reform

The 2019 Bill will prohibit foreign donations (a donor will need to be an Australian citizen, resident or business with an ABN) and cap electoral campaign donations at $1000 for local government elections, or $4000 for the City of Melbourne. The gift disclosure threshold will be lowered from $500 to $250, except the City of Melbourne where the gift disclosure threshold will remain at $500. All councils will be required to keep a gift register.

These changes to the rules concerning electoral campaign donation arrangements aim to improve and ensure the integrity and transparency of the electoral campaign donation process.

Improved conduct

The amendments propose to introduce mandatory standards of councillor conduct, a consistent arbitration process and arbiter powers to impose sanctions.

The prescribed standards of conduct are aimed to guide council behaviour and provide clear and specific benchmarks for acceptable conduct. The standards of conduct will be developed in consultation with local government and the community. The standards will also guide arbiters who investigate councillors alleged to have beached the standards.

The current legislation requires councils to develop and manage their own internal arbitration process. The amendments propose to align all councils by introducing the Principal Councillor Conduct Registrar (PCCR) who will manage the internal arbitration process for allegations of low level misconduct.

The proposed internal resolution procedures include a requirement that the arbiter is chosen from a PCCR pre-approved list of qualified arbiters. The PCCR approved arbiter will be empowered to impose a limited scope of penalties.

Community accountability

The 2019 Bill introduces two new pathways that can lead to the disqualification of a councillor. Disqualification may occur where a councillor is found to be guilty of serious misconduct twice within an eight year period, or where a Commission of Inquiry makes a finding that a councillor has caused or contributed to a failure by the council to provide good governance or to comply with a governance direction. Disqualification is for a four year period.

Under the current legislation and the 2018 Bill, a Commission of Inquiry may be appointed by the Minister. The 2019 Bill allows a Commission of Inquiry to be initiated by the community. This is done by way of petition, which at least 25 per cent of people enrolled to vote, or entitled to be enrolled, in the municipal district must sign.

These changes aim to keep councillors accountable for serious conduct violations and give the community who elected the councillor stronger participation rights.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.

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