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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Good or bad for local democracy?

Like many residents of the Bellarine Peninsula, DCSCA members are concerned that the state government's plan to replace the City of Greater Geelong council with an administrator could be bad for local democracy.

Today (12 April) the Victorian state government intends to table the review of a Commission of Inquiry into the governance of the City of Greater Geelong council; and then introduce legislation sacking the whole council – the mayor and the twelve councillors – and appointing an administrator to run the council until the 2020 elections.

The Government has sufficient support in the Lower House for its bill to pass easily, but the bill may take longer to pass the Upper House, where the government needs the support of either the Coalition, or the Greens and at least two crossbenchers.

If the legislation passes, Geelong council will be the sixth Victorian council to be sacked since the Kennett government amalgamated more than 200 Victorian councils to 79 in the 1990s. The others were Wangaratta (2013), Brimbank (2009), Glen Eira (2005), Nillumbik (1998) and Darebin (1998).

No strategic vision?
One of the reasons the Commission gives for sacking the council is that it has failed to develop a strategic vision for Geelong. However, the council lost control of its strategic planning in August 2015, when Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne took over planning decisions in Geelong for major projects over 5,000 square metres.

At the same time, the state government created the Geelong Authority to advise the Minister on key projects, implement major planning decisions, create jobs and drive growth in Geelong. Key projects for the Authority will include a new convention centre in central Geelong, the redevelopment of the Geelong Performing Arts Centre, the relocation of WorkCover and revitalizing the Geelong railway station precinct and Johnstone Park. The projects will be delivered by Places Victoria, the Victorian Government’s property development agency, which has the power to acquire, sell and swap land.

What future – and when?
Until the Commission of Inquiry’s report is made public and the state government introduces its legislation, we can only speculate about the implications of sacking the present council and appointing an administrator to run its affairs until 2020.

However, the legislation will have to address the Victorian Electoral Commission’s recent recommendation (to the Minister for Local Government) that the City of Greater Geelong should be reorganised in time for the 2016 elections. The present council consists of a directly-elected mayor plus twelve councillors, with each councillor representing a single ward. The VEC recommended reorganising the council into a directly-elected mayor plus eleven councillors representing four wards - three three-councillor wards and one two-councillor ward. (The whole Bellarine Peninsula would be one ward, represented by three councillors.)

Like the proposed council sacking, the VEC recommendation is based in legislation - a 2012 amendment to the City of Greater Geelong Act (1993). That amendment created the post of directly-elected Mayor of Geelong, resulting in a council of 12 councillors plus the Mayor for the 2012 council election. The amendment also required the VEC to recommend to the Minister for Local Government the most appropriate electoral structure for the council from the 2016 election onwards.

The state government’s sacking legislation would effectively overrule that 2012 amendment. It will be interesting to see how the government justifies doing this and denying Geelong's citizens the chance to vote for its council in October 2016.

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