City of Melbourne Amendment Bill 2011

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I am pleased to rise to make a contribution to debate on the City of Melbourne Amendment Bill 2011, and I would like to draw particularly on a couple of the key aspects of this bill. We note that this bill is about bringing the City of Melbourne into line with the other 78 local government authorities here in Victoria in relation to the way in which councillor numbers are determined, and it will also look at matters relating to whether the city should be divided into wards or councillors at large and those sorts of matters.

There is a historical aspect in relation to the City of Melbourne in particular. We have found that sometimes it has been the plaything of governments of the day, as all local governments are. Those of us who served as local government councillors would know the frustration sometimes of not being recognised in the constitution or being created out of an act of local government, which means we are sometimes subject to the will of the government of the day.

But while these things might occupy our attention and they might occupy the attention of legislators and local government councillors, the people who are the ratepayers go about their business and probably do not think too much on a day-to-day basis about the structures of local government. They probably mostly think about rates, roads and rubbish, how much they are paying for those services and whether they are getting a benefit from their local council for those services that are provided.

What I do know as a former Banyule city councillor is that ratepayers were always very pleased with the services they received from us but they were always very quick to make sure that it was known just how important it was that we focused on the services of the day — which were, at the time, rates, roads and rubbish — and on providing good governance. These are the things that people looked for; it was about services and it was about leadership.

What I have noticed in particular in relation to some of the changes that are being suggested here is that the Victorian Electoral Commission will determine the boundary reviews. While those matters will not directly be looked at, the commission will be looking at the number of councillors and whether wards are appropriate or at-large councillors. I know from my time living in Geelong, and working for the member for Geelong, and as a journalist at the Geelong Advertiser that there was a lot of debate in the community about the role of ward councillors and the role of at-large councillors. There was perhaps a view, maybe anecdotal, that at-large councillors were not as accountable in representing a whole city when there were others who might have represented 30 000 or 40 000 or 10 000 — in Geelong there were about 45 000 ratepayers — as ward councillors.

Ward councillors were busy people because local residents saw them as the people who responded to and were accountable to them for the services that were provided, whereas at-large councillors were perhaps, dare I say it, a bit like senators, a bit like the members of another place, who maybe had a little bit more latitude in their accountability to individual constituents.

That is something that the electoral commission will need to consider — making sure that people in the community have confidence in their local representative. It is also about having an understanding of who to go to for assistance and support. I think most members of this chamber would know through their electorate offices that we are all very much accountable to those people who, whatever the democratic process is, understand enough to know who their local member is and who they are voting for. Sometimes with those at-large processes — those processes that are of ward councillors or local Assembly members of Parliament — it makes it a little bit harder to find those associations, those links and those accountabilities.

I am sure the electoral commission will consider very carefully the sort of structure that is important for the City of Melbourne.

Naturally people living in the city of Melbourne are a little bit fatigued and may have some trepidation about what sort of processes are going to develop out of this bill and the consultations the electoral commission will pursue, because the City of Melbourne has a history, particularly in more recent years when I have been involved with it, of trying to alter its boundaries in discussions about its representation. While I acknowledge that this bill does not go to the issues of boundary changes, it will go to the composition of the council’s representation and how it is elected — that is, via wards or potentially under different circumstances. I know through working with the member for Melbourne that the important work she did back in 2006-07 advocating to allow her residents to have a say on boundary changes very much fed into the high level of interest that people in the city of Melbourne have in not only their level of representation but also how they are represented by the local councillors, whether they live in the city of Melbourne or the city of Moonee Valley.

I refer back to a couple of examples. Back in July 2007, when we saw the Docklands come back into the precinct of the City of Melbourne rather than being under the Docklands Authority, the residents of Docklands were able to vote in local government elections. We have seen one particularly significant change to the way in which the City of Melbourne operates today — some $200 million worth of assets and many residents moved from being part of the Docklands Authority to being represented by the City of Melbourne.

In July 2007 we also saw the member for Richmond, in his role as local government minister at the time, pursue the new panel to review the Kensington boundaries. That goes to some of the issues that Melbourne residents were keenly listening to — aspects that relate to this bill’s consideration — because they are interested in democracy in the City of Melbourne and are not only interested in the boundaries.

While with this bill there is no consideration of any tinkering with the boundaries of the City of Melbourne by this Parliament, it is something that is dear to the hearts of Melbourne residents. They are strong advocates, and in the past have shown that they have been keen to make submissions and have a say in how they are represented.

Back in 2007 over 500 submissions were received by the panel that reviewed the Kensington boundaries that were instituted by the Kennett government. At the time that boundary ran up Macaulay Road, splitting a pretty significant shopping strip between the city of Moonee Valley and the city of Melbourne. That created a lot of difficulties for the local community. They expressed those views through the strong advocacy of the member for Melbourne at the time, and through that process there was an opportunity to make changes to the review of the Melbourne City Council boundaries.

Those boundaries that were considered were around Smithfield Road and the Maribyrnong River in the west, Racecourse and Flemington roads to the north, Melrose Street to the east, and to the south Macaulay Road, Moonee Ponds Creek and the Williamstown and Werribee railway line.

I mentioned that there were 500 submissions. That indicates that a lot of people in the city of Melbourne have a strong interest in where they are represented, who they are represented by — which city council or particular councillors — and the system under which they are elected. A number of changes were made in December 2007. In dealing with a lot of those communities and working with the member for Melbourne and meeting a lot of those Kensington residents groups and Carlton residents groups, including the Kensington Association and many others, I saw firsthand that they had a particular interest in these matters. They felt strongly that there needed to be reunification around some of the areas of the City of Melbourne.

Maybe they were not too happy with the rates they were paying compared with those in the City of Moonee Valley, but that is another matter.

I point out that this bill will give people in the City of Melbourne the opportunity to make contributions to the electoral commission as to how they want their representation to be continued in the future. I suspect there will be an opportunity for them to make submissions, as we have seen in the past, in relation to whether they want ward councillors or whether they want councillors at large or a broader representation. These are the sorts of matters that I feel I have made a contribution on and which could be considered around the experiences I have had.

At the time I was in Geelong we had community debates and public meetings about councillors at large and ward councillors. While I was living there we eventually moved back to a system of having 12 ward councillors. You had 15 000 or 20 000 residents in your ward, and you were accountable to those people. They elected you, or if they did not, they knew you were their representative. You were who they dealt with, rather than the previous system whereby there were four ward councillors — if you can believe that, in a place as large as the City of Greater Geelong — who had about 45 000 ratepayers in their ward, and there was a large number of councillors at large who perhaps did not have that same level of day-to-day accountability that the ward councillors had. They were then expected to try to manage community issues and the day-to-day concerns people had. These are the sorts of issues that I think people in the City of Melbourne — when they have the opportunity, I hope, to make submissions through the electoral commission on potential changes to representation in the City of Melbourne — will want to give consideration to.

When I was a City of Banyule councillor we went through these processes with the electoral commission. It handled them very well. They provided great opportunities for local residents to have their say, and they reflected the local community’s views in maintaining seven councillors in the City of Banyule. That is perhaps an anomaly these days. There are not a lot of councils who have only seven elected representatives; usually they are up to about nine or more.

I commend these changes. It is important that we move away from the City of Melbourne being a plaything of governments of the day in this place and that there be more opportunity for local residents, through the electoral commission, to have their say on their future. I commend the bill to the house.