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Local Government Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2018

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 22 November 2018

Tags: Local Government, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, on behalf of the Greens I support this Local Government Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill. It contains a substantial number of amendments. Given the number of councils in Tasmania and the time it takes to reach agreement amongst the variety of players in the local government sector, this is a comprehensive raft of changes. It is very pleasing to see a number of them in particular, having been a councillor on the Huon Valley Council, several of these are overdue and very welcome.

I have had personal experience of the failings, the silence essentially, of the Local Government Act in guiding council laws and councils about a number of these issues. In some councils it has led to a certain amount of heartache and pain. In other councils it has led to concern about appropriate accountability measures and the fact that accountability has not been able to be achieved because information has not been made available or able to be made available. This appears to fix some of those issues.

I want to point to a few of the changes in here. I do support clause 8 which amends section 28ZB, which relates to the dismissal of code of conduct complaints on initial assessment and the inclusion of the words 'and trivial': Section 28ZB(1)(a) is amended to allow dismissal of a complaint made to a code of conduct panel on the basis that the complaint is trivial in addition to being vexatious. It has been my experience that the code of conduct process can be used by some particularly pugnacious, aggressive councillors who end up having highly personal relationships with other councillors that boil into a series of code of conduct complaints that are used as a type of attack on a councillor, a weapon essentially, to bog people down in endless paperwork.

I have seen it used a number of times against women who speak up and do not toe the line. They can be used in a vexatious way and they can be used on utterly trivial matters. It is painful, annoying and time consuming so I am very pleased to see the end of that process and the possibility of the empowerment of the code of conduct panel to dismiss a complaint on the basis that the complainant has not made a reasonable effort to resolve the issue that is the subject of the complaint.

I would like the minister's view on situations that I have observed where a complaint has been made against another councillor who is aggressive, pugnacious and difficult. I have seen people behaving incredibly rudely in workshops, unbelievably rudely in closed council workshops, because there is no-one else around except other councillors. In that situation where a person is behaving badly and is not inclined to be reasonable, it can be intimidating for a councillor to try to resolve an issue. I hope a person would not be expected to try to resolve a situation with a person who has presented themselves, particularly in front of other councillors in a workshop, as not wanting to change the way they speak to that person. What are your views about what would be required in that situation?

I had another question in relation to clause 14. This amends section 55(2) of the act by omitting the current section and replacing it with a new section which provides that a general manager must advise the councillor of any employees or general manager's interests. The general manager must keep a register of any such interests and it sets a maximum penalty for a breach of that section of 10 penalty units.

What happens with the register of an employee's or general manager's interests? What is its purpose? Is it to record and then be put away? We have had conflicts of interest in other situations in government where registering a conflict of interest is not enough to satisfy that the conflict is not misused. If a general manager has a register of conflicts with employees would that mean that the senior planning officer must not make a planning determination in relation to the people on the register? Or would it mean that person must not be on an interview panel because they have an interest?

Mr Gutwein - It would depend on what that interest was.

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes. Presumably it means some action will happen on some issues.

I am pleased to see that clause 15 amends section 56B of the act so that the gifts and donations register will be available for public inspection at council offices and on the council's website, and would be updated at least monthly. That is in line with other changes being made across government.

I am pleased to support clause 28 which amends section 228 of the act in relation to confidentiality so that board of inquiry documents or records used by the Director of Local Government for the purposes of an investigation would not be exempt from the Right to Information Act. The Government should take on board the fact that there is an exemption in the Right to Information Act for decisions made by a minister that are delegated to a secretary or to another senior member of government are not to be made available to the public.

That is a flaw, a loophole, an exemption, which the Premier has publicly acknowledged and the Ombudsman says should be changed. The Ombudsman cannot investigate the appropriateness of actions taken because the Right to Information Act prevents them from having any jurisdiction over those sorts of decisions and processes. It is not in the state's best interests when decisions are delegated to senior public servants so they cannot be available for public scrutiny under Right to Information. It is an abuse of the public's right to assess and scrutinise the decisions of everyone in state government just as much as local government. We support this clause and ask that the minister takes the same issue on board at the state.

Clause 35 amends section 339F, regarding the customer service charter. This means the councils' customer service charter must be reviewed within 12 months of a council election. It is important that new councillors must engage with the customer service charter for their council. That is a welcome addition because the way councillors frame the relationship between their council and ratepayers is incredibly important.

Clause 36 which amends section 340A clarifies that a councillor will not be entitled to allowances if they are suspended because of a performance improvement direction that has been issued under another part of the act. That is an entirely appropriate arrangement. It clarifies a difficult situation where this is all about putting in place a framework to encourage people to behave ethically.

Madam Speaker, what is missing from this bill is an amendment about the cost of boards of inquiry. It is thoroughly unjust and outrageous that the state government levies the costs of boards of inquiries onto the council communities for which they have ordered an inquiry to occur.

We have had two very expensive inquiry processes in Tasmania. The cost of those inquiries has been levied on the communities, who can ill afford them. I can only speak in relation to the Huon Valley. The minister does not like to hear it but the failure of his department, the Director of Local Government's Office, to act early enough on consistent and persistent complaints of misconduct and other corrupted processes in the Huon Valley Council led to a level of internal dysfunction that resulted in a board of inquiry having to be called. It was a case of failing to discipline people's behaviour. It encouraged them to continue to behave badly. It is totally unreasonable for communities to have to bear the cost of the state government failing to do its job of resourcing and providing the Director of Local Government with whatever is required to undertake thorough investigations, so that these things can be flushed out before it leads to a level of dysfunction and things falling apart within councils.

I acknowledge these changes to the Local Government Act will have involved many conversations with LGAT and throughout councils in Tasmania and with the staff in the department who have brought this altogether. As someone who has been on council, I look forward to the new batch of councillors, who have recently been elected, having tighter legislation to work within. Everyone in the state would be happy about that.