Local Government Amendment (Governance and Planning) Bill 2016

I speak in opposition to the Local Government Amendment (Governance and Planning) Bill 2016. The Baird Government has promised on numerous occasions both publicly and in this place to reform local government, and in every case and every way it has failed to deliver. The Government has failed the local communities of this State. Within the Hunter there are four councils in stasis and unsure of their future. They are unsure of their future direction or composition and are waiting at the whim of the Minister for Local Government to find out their fate. Developer mayors and brown paper bags containing money have been well documented by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Despite the apologies and promises of transparency and democracy all that has emerged is secrecy and disrespect for local communities. The local government reform process in Maitland has been a debacle. There has been an on-and-off merger proposal with the township of Dungog creating uncertainty as to any future partnership. Innovative ideas for the transformation of a community growing by five people per day have been put aside while amalgamations are finalised. That is too long to wait. The community of Dungog has been shopped around like a spinster at a bachelors and spinsters ball. A partnership was proposed first with Gloucester, then Maitland, then Port Stephens, and back to Maitland—who knows where they will end up at the end of the night. No real attempt has been made to address the backlog of infrastructure projects in the Dungog community.

Dungog will struggle to maintain basic services and growth for its community no matter who it is partnered with. I was recently approached by people from Dungog explaining that they had wished to put forward their views about merger partners to the Minister for Local Government via the member for Upper Hunter, but he refused to present them because he was backing the failed Dungog-Gloucester merger. It is another example of the failure of democratic representation by this Government for a local community. This bill is heralded as the Government's attempt to transform the sector. What we have seen is an attempt to muzzle elected councillors, a failure to deal adequately with pecuniary interests and entrenched old boys clubs that have led to a generation of disenfranchised citizens.

I will now look at these matters in detail. Schedule 1 item [30] deals with pecuniary interest. This proposed section empowers the Minister to approve a councillor, including a developer and real estate agent, who has a pecuniary interest in the matter before the council to vote on the matter without it being misconduct. It is done simply to enable a meeting to maintain a quorum. The issue of a quorum is legitimate. Liberal councillors in Newcastle have used this tactic to stymy the business of elected councillors. Labor's solution to the issue of quorums is not to promote an environment conducive to corruption, as proposed by the Government, but to ban real estate agents and property developers from election to councils.

There is a legitimate expectation from the community that this was an intention of Government and its implementation would result in a good outcome. This would largely resolve the quorum issue. A closer reading of the bill indicates that the Government is protecting property developers and real estate agents, who are current or former councillors or administrators, from having complaints made about a failure to disclose pecuniary interests. The bill explicitly removes the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal [NCAT] as the sole jurisdiction investigating complaints made about pecuniary interest failures by councillors and administrators. There is now no mechanism for the community to raise alleged pecuniary interest breaches by councillors or administrators. It cannot be raised through the departmental chief executive, NCAT or council itself. Instead pecuniary interests are dealt with solely through misconduct with no scope for the community to raise a complaint.

I turn now to the state of the environment reports. The report, which is produced every four years, is proposed for deletion under item [42]. The reports inform councillors in critical long-term decision-making where their obligations under proposed section 8A (2) (c) and (d) specify that they should consider the long-term and cumulative effects of actions on future generations and the principles of ecologically sustainable development. My community is under extreme pressure from a rapidly growing population to develop housing and road infrastructure on a floodplain and it is vital that the environmental consequences of all decisions regarding planning and environment take the environment into consideration. That is then combined with a lack of health and education services. That level of planning cannot be done without an adequate, informed, regular, comprehensive and thorough environmental report every four years.

Schedule 1 item [7] will entrench mayors elected from among councillors for two years. What is wrong with having popularly elected mayors for the term of councils? That would provide stability and provide the community with a say in the people who govern them. It is vital for democracy and the stability of councils that mayors are directly elected. When they speak they are directly accountable to the community for what they say, do and, most importantly, what they vote on. The Mayor of Maitland, Mr Peter Blackmore, OAM, has been elected for the last few terms of council and the last two elections have seen him win over 50 per cent of the vote.

Although at times the mayor and I may have differing political views, I must always accept that 50 per cent of our community continues to support him as their representative. He attends many community events and has been a leader in our community for many years. When he speaks, he enjoys the support of the majority of the community. A mayor elected only by councillors cannot be said to speak for the entire community; he or she simply represents the backroom deals and politicking done in local government which disgusts our communities and which they abhor.

I draw the attention of the House to schedule 1 item [8], proposed section 232. If we have councillors, we must ensure that their roles do not call for them to "uphold and represent accurately the policies and decisions of the governing bodies". This clause is against the principles that the Government itself should apply to decision-making by councils. The bill refers to principles that should apply to decision-making by councils and the need for councils to recognise diverse local community needs and interests. It also requires them to consider social justice principles, the long-term and cumulative effects of actions on future generations, and the principles of ecologically sustainable development. It states that councils' decision‑making should be transparent and that decision-makers must be accountable for decisions and omissions.

How can councillors do that if they are gagged? This legislation is simply another gag. We have seen this Government gag the community sector in respect of not-for-profit service contracts, and now we see it attempting to gag elected local government representatives. Councillors and mayors are not public servants; they are elected representatives. They may strongly oppose a decision of the majority on the council on behalf of their constituents. To take that right from them is to make them less than citizens in their local communities. Just as I in opposition must scrutinise and check this Government's action, so too must councillors and mayors scrutinise and check their local council's actions. When we find them wanting and when our communities raise concerns, it is not only our right but also our responsibility as elected representatives to voice those concerns. That right should be extended and entrenched for local councillors.

Just as we should not be advocating for councillors to abrogate their responsibility to advocate for and represent their communities, so should we not allow them to abrogate their responsibility to govern for the people. Items [21], [23], [24] and [25] expand the roles and powers of general managers—unelected public servants—including determining the organisational structure of the council. That it should be the role of the general manager "to advise the mayor and the governing body on the appropriate form of community consultation on the strategic plans, programs, strategies and policies of the council and other matters related to the council" negates the strong relationships that local councillors have with their local communities, and dictates the appropriate forms of community consultation and engagement. This is yet another potential gag. This bill was the Government's opportunity to clean up the excesses of some local government authorities that we have seen in recent times. It also presented an opportunity to clean up our councils and to remove developers and real estate agents from councils. It has failed. I urge members to oppose this bill.

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