It gives me great pleasure to rise to speak on the Local Government Amendment (Electoral Matters) Bill 2011, because I am always delighted to be given the opportunity to speak on matters related to local government, as local government has a very special place in my history and my heart.

I oft remember my former colleague at the City of Yarra and chair of the Metropolitan Transport Forum, Jackie Fristacky, an indefatigable and impressive long-term councillor. She said on many occasions — in fact as often as anyone would listen — that in her view local government is the most important tier of government in Australia. While I would not necessarily go that far, I do share the view that local government is a very important level of representative democracy in our community. In fact it is the tier of government that many people have the most direct interaction with, and it has a vital role in managing and shaping the areas in which we live, socialise and raise our families.

I certainly appreciated the great privilege and opportunity, as I know many who have spoken on this bill already in this house did, to work closely with the community in local government in a broad range of areas, such as major infrastructure projects and developments; the provision of child care and libraries; the allocation and management of open space and sporting and community facilities; the significant role of structure and statutory planning for the municipality; bike infrastructure; local sustainability and recycling initiatives and programs; support for the arts and local artists; the delivery of vital community services such as home care; and of course roads, rates and rubbish.

In listing some of these very important responsibilities and activities of local government, which this bill seeks to provide more time for newly elected councillors to consider as they prepare the all-important documents — the four-year council plans — it is important to note that we on this side of the house lament the current government’s approach to so many of these important matters. The government has made cuts to occasional care, it has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to library funding and it has absolutely gutted very successful climate communities programs and the Department of Sustainability and Environment, placing a very significant and much greater burden on local governments to deal with the very pressing issues of climate change and climate action, particularly in light of this government’s running a million miles from its pre-election commitments regarding action on climate change and pricing on carbon.

That brings me to the issues of planning.

This bill provides, as I said, more time for councils to prepare their council plans and come together as a team to look at these matters, and we would remind this government that we are debating a bill about local government and that the role of this government should be to respect and strengthen the voices of our local communities, not abandon them and their needs. For example, in the area of statutory planning only recently, in the last month, the Minister for Planning came in and overruled my local community with respect to a very important development in East Brunswick, on the Tontine site. The community, which had spent countless hours coming up with a proposal that had everyone’s agreement, has been left reeling, angry and disappointed.

As this house has noted, the first aspect of this bill is to bring forward the timing of the four-year election date from the last Saturday in November of an election year to the last Saturday in October.

As a former councillor who was elected in November 2008, I certainly join with my colleagues on this side of the house in not opposing this amendment, because the intention of the bill is clearly to allow more time for councillors to be inducted and prepare for their roles prior to the break. Certainly when I was at the City of Yarra in November 2008 seven of the nine councillors elected at that time were new, so that period in which to do some team building, get to know colleagues and work hard on those really important council plans was absolutely critical. Therefore allowing this bit of extra time certainly cannot hurt that process.

I go back to the priorities of the council plan, because these documents are extremely significant. They set the tone and the priorities for the council for the entire term.

They not only allow the community to see whether the councillors have implemented what they said they were going to during the election campaign but they also give clear markers by which they can be held to account over the four-year period, so a lot of work needs to go into them, and they are extremely important, as I said. In the lead-up to their annual budgetary and annual plan processes councils must have regard to that initial document. Unless that document is prepared in the spirit of teamwork and with great focus and clarity it will not fulfil that very important obligation, so that extra time is to be welcomed.

Not surprisingly the bill also makes associated changes regarding the filing of campaign donation returns, the election of mayors and the setting of allowances. These activities are also extremely important to ensure transparency and scrutiny in council elections and in councillor conduct.

The bill also expands the range of circumstances which may adversely affect the holding of council elections and which would enable an order in council to be made to change the election date for one or more councils. These circumstances include school holidays, state or federal elections and natural disasters such as bushfires and flooding. We know that the turnout for local elections is notoriously low, which is a shame given that this is a very important level of government, so any further impediments to voting should be removed.

This bill also provides for regular electoral representation reviews in the city of Melbourne. Given the continually dynamic and changing residential and demographic profiles of this great city, this is appropriate. We have seen massive changes in residential developments, with different areas being developed in the CBD and Docklands and with the incorporation of North Melbourne and Kensington into the municipality. These provisions are very important to ensure that the local government structures that cover the city accurately reflect and represent its constituents.

The role of local government, as I have highlighted, in shaping and creating dynamic, safe and responsive communities is critical, and therefore councillors and ward structures — or no ward structures — need to reflect the community that they represent, particularly with respect to the numbers and concentration of residents throughout the municipality.

As the member for Richmond pointed out clearly and correctly, this is an independent process away from elected politicians to ensure that the structures that are introduced — —

Mr Wakeling interjected.

Ms GARRETT — I do not believe you are in your seat, sir.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Mr Morris) — Order! The member for Ferntree Gully will resume his seat.

Ms GARRETT — This is an independent process away from elected politicians to ensure that the structures that are introduced again reflect the constituency. In summary, local government is an extremely important tier of government.

This bill makes changes that we do not oppose and which will allow further time for new council laws and new council configurations to come together prior to a Christmas break to work on the council plans. As we know, those council plans include many, many important aspects that affect the day-to-day lives of the citizens they represent.

We would again call on this government to work more strongly in partnership with local government and to not remove support and funding for critical services that local governments and state governments share responsibility for, because this will only lead to much poorer service delivery and representation for our communities.

Hansard, 2011