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Local Government Amendment (Elections) Bill 2022

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Tags: Local Government Elections, Democracy, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Speaker, the Greens very strongly engaged with and supported the reform process which has been the review of the local government legislative framework undertaken by the department over a number of years. I think it first formally started in the community in March 2019, which is three years ago. We participated very actively because we really understand that local government is essential and an often-overlooked level of government. It certainly does not have the constitutional recognition and the legislative framework that it deserves.

We are of the view that there were quite a number of changes that needed to be made to the legislation. We made a substantial contribution to the review process in March, including that changes should be made to the General Manager's roll so that the roll is abolished and is essentially taken over because it does not enable the principles of contemporary democracy that give individuals one vote. It is the opportunity to have more than one vote. Businesses entities, for example, are able to have a vote, when a business is not a person. This effectively allows businesses to have more votes than other people, and that fundamentally offends of one vote, one person.

It entrenches a bias towards wealthier people and sectors of the community. Also, the General Manager's roll enables people to vote from outside an electorate. There are a number of reasons why we do not believe that the General Manager's roll in its current form performs the democratic purpose that it ought to.

We also strongly proposed and were pleased to see that the department supported the recommendation to have compulsory voting, and that there should be in legislation provisions around the caretaker period. There are a number of reasons why the caretaker period is sloppy in Tasmania at the moment. Other jurisdictions have provided explicit provisions in legislation that require councils to have caretaker policies. They do not all necessarily prescribe the form that it happens, but some of them do. For example, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and New South Wales all have fairly similar provisions and require common rules around the fact that no major policy decisions can be made in the caretaker period. For example, you cannot appoint or terminate or vary the salary of a CEO or approve expenditure or a contract greater than 1 per cent of the council's revenue. It requires that councils have a process to apply to the Minister for Local Government for an exemption that allows for other major policy decisions; that provisions be made to allow for the invalidation of major policy decisions if they are made in contravention of the act around the caretaker provision period; and that there should be some compensation for damage if decisions are made during that period and they are made unlawfully.

In the Victorian legislation there are some really useful and important requirements around advertisements, hand bills, pamphlets, and notices that must be certified by the General Manager during this period. Queensland does not allow publication of election materials. Some caretaker policies go further and require that all announcements and publications are handled by council staff, are limited to operational matters only, and that they do not spruik council projects or events.

We recommended that there be minimum requirements for caretaker provisions in the Tasmanian amendments to the legislation with a standard provision about how major policy decisions are made in relation to the matters I have described, to do with termination of salary variation or appointment of General Managers and a process to allow for an exemption by the Minister for Local Government, if necessary, for major policy decisions and a process for them to be declared unlawful if they are not undertaken in that frame.

In the second iteration of the reform process, phase 2 in August 2019, we made a second submission. We were very supportive of the fact that the Local Government Review Team had not shied away from the ambitious reforms that we need in Tasmania. Our view is that these are in line with communities' expectations about democracy and good functioning and the sort of basic legislative frameworks that people probably expect are already in place to guide the actions of local councils. There were 51 reform directions proposed and there were only a few that we opposed.

I am pleased to say that almost all the things we proposed in our first submission were taken up by the department. The thing that was not supported was the reform of the General Manager's roll in the manner in which we proposed. We remain concerned that the recommended reform, which is not in this bill and I will get to that, to eligibility for the General Manager's roll would allow people to enrol to vote in an area if they occupied a property where they are not themselves a resident. It would also allow people to enrol to vote if they are the sole representative of a business operating from a property in an area, provided that they are an Australian citizen and not already on the roll in that area.

These do not deal with the concerns that we continue to have; that it provides opportunities for individuals who are more wealthy and who have more political power to exert influence over the people who are on council through exercising extra votes than other members of the community are able to.

We did not get any rationale from the department. I would like the minister to speak to why this position has been adopted as a recommendation. These are the review of the approved reforms from the Review of the Local Government Legislative Framework. We have no rationale for why this is the current stated position of the Government.

Mr Street - You mean the General Manager's roll?

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, about who gets to vote on the General Manager's roll. We can only assume that there is the influence of wealthy interest groups at play.

Mr Street - That is not fair.

Dr WOODRUFF - Well, it is a question.

Mr Street - Ask it as a question.

Dr WOODRUFF - This is my second reading contribution and I can say what I like. The question is: minister, what is the reason for not enforcing the one vote, one person throughout the whole of the Local Government Act reform and for having this remaining carve-out in the General Manager's roll so that corporations get extra votes and people who are asset rich with multiple houses are able to have extra votes? People who are asset rich with multiple houses are able to have extra votes. We think this is inequitable and it does not fit in with the democratic voting rights that we have as a society at the state and federal levels. The argument that at the local government level people have more engagement and more connection with what is happening at the local government level does not really stack up because people are just as affected at a personal household level by decisions that are made at the state and federal levels. We believe it is a case of providing consistency across levels of government.

I turn to the bill before us. Here we are with this amendment bill. I agree with Ms Dow's comments that we were very surprised to see it being brought on now. We support it being brought on now because we supported the whole legislative package coming in before the October election.

We are deeply and bitterly disappointed on behalf of councillors in local government and also ratepayers who wanted to get these legislative reforms done. I also agree that this minister seems to have a propensity for doing something, which is excellent. It has been two years wasted by the Government. These could have been brought forward. They are fundamentally and wildly agreed to. They could have even been brought forward with two or three things which had disagreement, but the vast majority of the 51 recommendations, every one has been discussed now for multiple years by all councils and LGAT. I do not think this is a last-minute review process; there has been plenty of time. There is no argument for not bringing these other things on. I am concerned that a number of other things in here, particularly about the conflict of interest provisions and the principles-based legislation have not been included.

Principles-based legislation is far too narrow at the moment. We think, given the changes in the community and the massive crises we face, that local government will be on the front line with in many cases, there has never been a more important time to review the powers and functions of the act and to propose strategic and operational priorities that will give communities the skills and facilities, and the preparation they so desperately need to be able to respond and flourish in our changing climate.

This bill seeks to make voting compulsory and reduce the number of boxes that a voter has to number correctly for a valid vote from previously up to 12 to now five.

I want to read in some comments from Kevin Bonham, Tasmania's psephologist, who has written some very useful psephological points. He has run the numbers and it is helpful to understand the impact of informal voting. It has been very damaging on our democracy. This was most acute in the all-in all-out election of 2018. He says that both the 2014 and 2018 council elections had unacceptably high rates of informal voting, mostly as a result of voter error, trying to vote from one to 12 with dozens of candidates and no party cues. If there were any, many people made mistakes and the votes were not counted. The contests where a voter particularly had to number from one to six without error required people to vote from one to 12 in the all-in all-out election. Clearly, it had a damaging effect on the number of valid votes.

The informal vote rates in 2018 were 8.78 per cent in Hobart, 7.94 per cent in Launceston, and 7.28 per cent in Launceston. These are very high and concerning. He says that in a state where local government seats are frequently decided by a few dozen votes or less - a recent Hobart recount was decided by less than two votes - there is little doubt that the current system is sometimes electing the wrong councillors and is not democratically legitimate.

A voting system has to accept that some voters do not have strong clerical or numeracy skills and excluding those people through observably strict counting laws is likely to result in seats being wrongly decided. He also goes on to say that reducing the number of boxes to five will increase the currently negligible exhaust rate, although plenty of voters will still number beyond five. The experience of the somewhat similar Senate system suggests that exhaust rates will not be massive. His estimate is that they will rise from below 1 per cent to a few per cent. The argument he makes, however, which is a good one, is that a vote exhausting because a voter chooses not to number further boxes is a minor matter compared to a vote not being counted at all because the voter made a mistake with their tenth or eleventh preference, a point at which their vote may well have had no impact anyway.

Therefore, we strongly support the measures in here to remove informal voting. As we have been on the record and stated in our two submissions, we also strongly support compulsory voting. One of Dr Bonham's arguments, which is an interesting one that I had not thought of and it is a very good point, is that in the last few years the impact of council politics on many young voters has greatly increased, primarily because of the ongoing issues with affordable housing and rental availability. Councils have a large impact on the housing market and on the regulation of short-stay accommodation. Young voters are severely underrepresented in voluntary voting in councils, which is shown in the Tasmanian Electoral Commission's report on the 2018 election. He says -

It is now more important than before that young voters are heard as close to equally as possible in council elections, so that those affected by council decisions are not disadvantaged by the failure of others in their cohort to participate.

For this reason, Dr Bonham has changed his previous position of opposing compulsory voting. To pass compulsory voting without also improving the rules for formality would be likely to make an even greater voting mistake and even greater effective disenfranchising before they cast an informal vote. Therefore he, and we, support those two measures coming in together.

Mr Speaker, I conclude by saying that we do not have any amendments to this other than that we would have preferred to see the whole package of reforms come before us. We would especially have preferred to see some legislative reform on caretaker provisions. I have heard that the stop-gap measure that the minister proposes for this is to write to the Kingborough Council and invite them to share their caretaker provision guidelines with other councils -

Mr Street - Just to correct you, I am going to write to each individual council with a copy of Kingsborough Council's policy, rather than write to Kingborough Council only.

Dr WOODRUFF - I do remember you said that, thank you. We support that all councils get a copy of Kingborough's caretaker provision guidelines; however, that is just a short-stop measure and it should be in legislation. We have not had a look at Kingborough Council's caretaker provisions, so we cannot comment on them in terms of whether they do the work that other jurisdictions have done. We hope they do, because there are decisions about employment, or the removal of the General Manager and the expenditure of large amounts in that period, which are really critical and have been things that people have pointed to in the past and made allegations of bias or unfair decision-making during that period. There are plenty of opportunities to tighten up our act in that area.

I thank the minister for bringing on what we have. Local government would be better for all of the reforms being enacted, but it will be better at the next election for having these two in place.