Local Government Amendment (Councillor Misconduct and Poor Performance) Bill 2015

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [5.06 p.m.]: I speak in debate on the Local Government Amendment (Councillor Misconduct and Poor Performance) Bill 2015. An effective and independent system of local government is essential to the functioning of government in New South Wales. Local government should reflect the concerns of local neighbourhoods to the best of its ability, promote social cohesion and provide bespoke local services. The community is well aware of, and concerned about, the unique vulnerability to external forces, corruption and budget pressures that local government faces. But I have deep concerns about this bill. It gives the Minister and the appointed chief executive of the Office of Local Government more power over local government by introducing a series of bureaucratic hurdles, and more red and beige tape. Although introduced in good faith, if this bill were to pass unaltered there would be few checks and balances on the power of the Minister over local government.

The Opposition does not oppose this bill in its entirety; however, a number of provisions allow the Minister to bully democratically elected councils. Should the Minister not be pleased with the outcome of his demands, he would have the power to ban councillors' right of appeal to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. I trust that the Minister has good intentions, but there must be an understanding that these powers would be enforceable over democratically elected representatives. Handing a red card to councillors for broadly defined misconduct—at the whim of one of Her Majesty's Ministers or a bureaucrat appointed by the Minister—is against the wishes of the people of New South Wales. In other words, it is a threat to the separation of powers that underpins our social democracy.

Schedule 1 [25] is also questionable. Under this bill, simply leaving a council meeting, introducing a rescission motion or submitting a "large number of questions on notice" could be grounds for disciplinary action. How could a councillor ask too many questions? Asking questions is vital to establishing facts and showing a transparent government process. How can an elected councillor, a representative of the local community, ask too many questions? There are multiple problems with this amendment. Normal meeting procedure could be defined as "misconduct" and there is ambiguity regarding how "intending to prevent the proper or effective functioning of council" could be proven.

No court or tribunal is involved in determining this definition. As the member for Fairfield said, the Minister or the chief executive serves as the judge, jury and executioner. Furthermore, amending section 440H to expand powers for "any person" to provide documents gives too much power to the chief executive. It is unclear who may have to provide documents under threat of a $2,200 fine. Would it be local community groups or political parties or the person who is active in their local community group? The purpose of this new section is unclear and it needs to be refined. Labor's plan for local government is better than what the Government has offered. The Leader of the Opposition has offered a three-point plan to reduce the potential for councillor misconduct by banning developers from becoming councillors, introducing donation caps and having popularly elected mayors.

If the Baird Government were serious about local government reform it would adopt Labor's plan to reduce the potential for corruption in local government and it would encourage a greater level of professionalism from local councils by supporting popularly elected mayors. If the Baird Government were serious it would not put local government in the too-hard basket and offer blanket solutions such as increased ministerial power and forced council amalgamations. If the Baird Government were really serious it would repeal former Premier O'Farrell's amendments to the Local Government Act that dilute conflict of interest provisions. The Opposition believes that section 451 of the Act needs to be amended so that a "special disclosure" is not enough for councillors when voting on council-wide matters. A conflict of interest, especially for property developers, should mean no vote allowed.

Local government is important to the people of Prospect. In the east, the residents of Holroyd are deeply concerned about the future of their local services if Holroyd City Council is disintegrated and forcibly amalgamated by the Baird Government. Ironically, a recent mayoral election meeting had to be postponed because the Liberal councillors did not bother to attend. Such an occurrence would not happen under Labor's plan as the mayor would be popularly elected for four years. One can only speculate whether the Liberal Minister would red card a Liberal councillor for not attending an important meeting. In the south, similar fears about local services linger. Fairfield City Council already has a popularly elected mayor, which I believe has provided stability within that council.

In the north, Blacktown City Council faces its own raft of problems. A two-time Liberal candidate for mayor was recently evicted from a council meeting for shouting abuse at a former Liberal councillor, calling her "Judas". Would that kind of conduct attract a red card from the Minister, even if it meant upsetting the balance of power in the State's most populous local government area and the Diaz family's Liberal Party dynasty? It is evident that important local government issues need to be resolved. I recognise that the Minister for Local Government is taking action to address some of those problems, but this legislation has deficiencies that need to be ironed out in Committee. More importantly, reform of local government is needed and the State Government should take the path of promoting a higher standard of local representative rather than spreading fear. I support the passage of the bill through this House, with the recommendation that it be amended at the consideration in detail stage.

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