Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria) — I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the City of Greater Geelong Amendment Bill 2011, and I do so not only as a member who proudly represents Western Victoria Region but also as a ratepayer in the City of Greater Geelong. In the first instance I will take this opportunity to raise some general issues. I will then go into some of the specifics of what has occurred in Geelong in recent times. There are three major issues that have been raised with me, which were also mentioned in the other chamber.
The first of course is the issue of the cost involved in running for mayor, in terms of postage, printing and advertising, and the genuine concern that a considerable slice of the community will just not be able to afford to nominate and run a campaign. I have heard what Mr Koch and others have said about that, but I do not think this issue can be pooh-poohed or hit back across the table tennis court. It really is an issue that goes to the heart of the shape of our democracy and people’s access to it.
It is of enormous concern also because this tier of government is the tier which is closest to the community, and we should ensure in every possible way that every member of the community can access it and indeed nominate and run for public office. I raise that concern, and I will not walk away from that issue.
The second issue I wanted to raise is the issue of an elected mayor versus a deputy mayor who is elected by his elected councillors. I am concerned about this situation possibly leading to dislocation and instability where a mayor and a deputy mayor disagree on issues or indeed disagree with each other on most things. Related to that is the possibility of a generally elected mayor of a council on which there is a group of councillors who are the majority and who do not support the mayor who has been elected. Again, I think this will potentially lead to instability and gridlock on issues, and I think it could divert the council from pursuing the legitimate concerns of the people of Geelong.
They are the three main points that have been put to me time and again, and I really look forward to the review that it has been stipulated will occur in 2014 on how those sorts of issues will be teased out and dealt with, because I think they are legitimate issues.
I will say a couple of other things in the wider context of this bill. The first is that if this government was serious about the concept of an elected mayor or mayors, whether in Geelong or in a wider context, I think it could have done a much better job of bringing on board key stakeholders, whether in the Geelong community or the wider context. I do not think the government has done a good enough job of bringing on board key stakeholders like the MAV (Municipal Association of Victoria). I think that is a shame and a missed opportunity.
I think that in a lot of ways the government has essentially wanted to impose a model that it has had in mind instead of working cooperatively with key stakeholders, and I can only think that maybe it was concerned that the stakeholders might have wanted to have a genuine discussion and tease out all the issues related to this concept, and that that is why the government essentially chose not to bring people on board and to work in partnership with them. You only have to read the MAV submission to the exercise that was conducted — submission 54 — which says:
“The MAV is of the view that any proposal for significant change to the electoral structure of the City of Greater Geelong needs to be accompanied with a clear and detailed discussion of the benefits and any disbenefits on democracy and governance, and the additional cost to the community and council …”
I simply say in this chamber today that this did not happen. It simply has not occurred. I also should mention that yes, there have been direct discussions with the City of Greater Geelong on numerous occasions, but the council sent a letter to the Minister for Local Government in May and still has not received answers to a range of key questions contained in that correspondence. That is quite disappointing.
I am aware too that the Liberal Party took the issue of a directly elected mayor to the 2006 and 2010 elections.
That resonates in my mind as I deal with this issue. But I think it would be a failure on my behalf if I did not provide some of the overarching political context for this — that is, the local context for this issue in Geelong. I acknowledge that some organisations have always been key advocates for a directly elected mayor in Geelong — for example, the Committee for Geelong, which has lobbied all political parties vigorously for a very long time. I do not have an issue with this at all; that is their right, and they have been effective in prosecuting their claim.
The Geelong Advertiser has also run a campaign in the newspaper for a directly elected mayor, which it is entitled to do, and I have no issue with that. However, I do take issue with the way the government has dealt with this proposal and how it has conducted itself throughout the process. I know very few voters at the last state election understood the Liberal Party to have a commitment to a directly elected mayor in Geelong.
It was not an election issue in the wider community, because there were other more serious issues in that election. I know it was not a vote changer in Geelong — the seats of Lara, Geelong and Bellarine were retained by Labor — and I cannot remember anyone in South Barwon believing the directly elected mayor concept was an election issue.
When we went to the polls in the Geelong area, issues that were at the forefront of people’s minds were things like a second hospital for Geelong, community safety, police numbers, transport, a library and heritage centre, the education spend, a Torquay secondary school, roads funding, sporting and recreational facilities, the protection of the environment, the provision of child care and a new emergency services centre, just to name a few. The directly elected mayor issue did not figure at all. I think it was a sleeper.
I think even the Liberal Party was well and truly asleep at the wheel on this one; that was, of course, until some institutional proponents came knocking at its doors wanting the concept to be delivered. What occurred then was panic. How could this new system be implemented and imposed on the electorate whilst drawing a veil of consultation over the process? I say ‘imposed’ because on page 2 of the government’s own document, which is titled ‘Directly elected mayor for Greater Geelong — consultation submission’, it says:
“The government has decided that the residents and ratepayers of Greater Geelong should have the opportunity to directly elect their mayor.”
I could talk in great detail about the process and provide a critique of it in terms of consultation, but I do not think it would serve any purpose at this point in time. I will say, firstly, that I believe the consultation submission pro forma was innately biased.
Secondly, I think the consultation process was lacking in terms of how it was done. It may have ticked all the boxes for a bureaucrat who was sitting behind a desk in Melbourne. It may have been a tool that government MPs could use in this debate to indicate that certain things were talked about by certain people at certain times. But essentially there was not a serious or genuine consultation process in my view, and I think a lot of the people in Geelong knew this. That is why there was a relatively low participation rate in the consultation process.
Sixty-five submissions were received. The house needs to understand that of those submissions only 29 explicitly supported the proposition of a directly elected mayor. That is right; 44.6 per cent of the population who engaged in the process indicated a preference for a directly elected mayor. That figure is not made up; it is described on page 2 of the government’s document titled ‘Direct election of the mayor of Greater Geelong — consultation summary’.
Essentially what we have here today is an example of how not to go about creating good public policy or good legislation. I can understand that political parties talk to different organisations and individuals and make election promises. It goes to the heart of how we go about our business. But it beggars belief when an issue such as this, which goes to the heart of how local government operates, is dealt with without vigorous debate on the pros and cons, without the pros and cons being properly pointed out and where partnerships have not been formed in the lead-up to the initiation of good policy and inclusive implementation processes. What we have been left with is a whole range of questions that remain unanswered by individuals, and the City of Greater Geelong is still waiting for answers to and clarification of a lot of issues. The net result of this is a spatial vortex. We are being asked to watch this space.
From an opposition perspective, I can say we will be watching this space.
I agree with the shadow Minister for Local Government, Richard Wynne, the member for Richmond in the other place, who said in his contribution that this is a wait-and-see proposition. The ratepayers of Geelong deserve better than a wait-and-see proposition. They deserved a better process leading up to this bill, and they deserve — —
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr O’Brien) — Time!