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Utopia for Crook Councils in New Local Government Bill

We sometimes have arguments in our house, because The Family thinks Utopia is hysterically funny - and I can’t see the humour. The PR lady is the favourite character and The Family particularly enjoyed the episode where staff were discovering and tossing all the expensive un-used marketing props for projects that never got off the ground.

The Local Government Act 2019 reminds me of Utopia.

There are dozens of sections that are going to spin like crazy in PR for the Mouldy Media: engagement policies, council plans, financial plans, open meetings to brief residents on the Annual Report, clauses to make sure Councils monitor the performance of the CEO and report back to the Community on progress on the Plan and the Budget.

But the scummy detail is all still there.

The CEO and staff still get carte blanche to withhold whatever information they want from Councillors or residents by calling it ‘operational.’

Councillors can still be charged with serious misconduct (serious mind you) if they try to hassle the CEO or staff for information about staffing, or spending, or credit card payments, or consultant payments, or contract terms, or anything the Council says is ‘operational’ or ‘confidential.’

And who would know otherwise?

And there’s a lot more paperwork. All those new plans that are supposed to look like they’re making Council accountable. Financial Plans, Council Plan, workforce plan, engagement policy etc etc.

The compliance cost of all this new paperwork is staggering. And these plans serve absolutely no useful purpose for residents or ratepayers. They exist purely so Councils and MPs can say “there’s a plan” as though the plan itself magically makes ratepayers happy.

More cost, no practical improvement.

For example: the Financial Plan is completely separate from the Budget, which is completely separate from the Financial Year reports. The financials in the Budget and those in FY Statements don’t even look remotely similar. And neither of them are set out the way ratepayers want to see the financials, which is to allocate staff, consultants, contractors, fee revenue, expenses and capital according to the relevant service areas of Council. With last year and Budgeted side by side.

The Budget is a compliance document for the Local Government Minister and is all about what Council is going to spend. The Financial Year Reports are all about what Council has spent , and they go to the Auditor General, to make sure all the same type of dollars go in the correct columns.

Does the Financial Report allow residents (or Councillors) to look at what was proposed and what was spent? No. Does the Financial Report check that Council spent money on actual services to residents, instead of wasting it on expensive CEO salaries or PR campaigns? No.

Here are my 3 favourite clauses verbatim from the new Local Government Act 2019.

53 Council must establish an Audit and Risk Committee

(1) A Council must establish an Audit and Risk Committee.

(2) An Audit and Risk Committee is not a delegated committee.

This is important because ‘not a delegated committee’ means it has no power under the Act. But there are following clauses that make sure the Committee includes outside (paid) experts and reports regularly and has a charter, so it looks really important. But all this Committee does is basically checks that Council staff are adhering to all the policies and guidelines they’re supposed to. So it’s a very expensive compliance committee that provides absolutely no practical benefit whatsoever to ratepayers. And has no power.

All ratepayers want is for the CEO and Directors to be sackable. And Councillors too.

Ironically, I went to the ‘launch’ of the Ratings Review and the re-write of the Local Government Act, and Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek proclaimed that after extensive road trips around the State, the new legislation would include provisions for ratepayers to be able to petition to have local Councillors removed.

It’s disappeared.

Clause 93: Revenue and Rating Plan

A Council must prepare and adopt a Revenue and Rating Plan by the next 30 June after a general election for a period of at least the next 4 financial years.

This is it. In hundreds of pages of legislation, this is all the Act has to say about a revenue and rating plan. And not a whisper of any consultation or engagement. No mention of it being included in the Budget or the Annual Report. Other sections of the Act, like the Audit Committee and the Municipal Monitor are very specific about what type of people should be included and what processes should be followed and reimbursing expenses etc etc, but when it comes to revenue and rating, the most significant and contentious area of Council operations, one sentence covers everything.

Yes, there's a rating review still underway. But the Act makes absolutely no reference to it. And it too, will be a stinker.

But wait, there’s more. I’m going to finish with a laugh. Because you have to laugh. Think of Utopia.

Think of all the useless Plans and the fake engagement and the total control the Act gives to un-elected staff. And the millions of dollars of our money that Councils demand and spend every year.

And this is how the Act holds Council legally accountable .

105 Accounts and records

(1) The Principal Accounting Officer of a Council must ensure that there are kept proper accounts and records of the transactions and financial affairs of the Council.

(2) A failure by a Council to keep proper accounts 15 and records and the reason for that failure must be reported in the annual report.

Ta Da!

ICAC, the Auditor-General, Council Monitors, Ministerial Reviews etc are all redundant. Because having to ‘fess up in the Annual Report that Council can't find an invoice, or lost a credit card statement is enough to ensure Council keeps accurate and complete records.

With an Act like this it’s a miracle any Council corruption is ever uncovered, let alone prosecuted.

And it certainly explains why Councils feel free to keep raising and spending ratepayer funds any way they want.

If you're as furious as I am, please share this with your local state MP and Councillor.

If your state MP votes in favour of this Bill, chuck out all the Councillors from that party.

Council election on 24.10.2020. State election 26.11.2022.

thanks for reading.

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