In February 2020 State MPs will be asked to pass a new Local Government Act which effectively outlaws residents from having any effective say in how their local Council raises rates and spends money.
Virtually everything to do with rates, budgeting and finance is exempt from resident consultation under the Local Government Act even though the Act pretends to give residents a voice.
The Local Government Bill 2019 reads:
Clause 55 Community engagement policy
(1) A Council must adopt and maintain a community engagement policy…
(3) A Council must adopt the first community engagement policy under this section on or before 1 March 2021.
And it includes generic statements about reflecting the community as a whole and publishing policies and other bits and pieces. But most of the Act is set to take effect from July 1st 2020 at the latest. So, all the Budgets and rate setting and spending plans will all be done in secret, as they always have been, long before Council has to implement its new engagement policy. (And bearing in mind Council might ensure its Engagement Policy excludes budgets, rates and finance)
Further in the Act, Part 4 is very specific about residents’ roles in Planning and Financial Management. The first clause in this Section instructs community brainstorming activities.
Clause 88 (1-5) Community Vision
“(1) A Council must maintain a Community Vision that is developed with its municipal community in accordance with its deliberative engagement practices.”
(Quick paraphrase here - there’s detail about the document being a 10 year Vision, when consultation should take place and when it comes into effect.)
The Vision is followed up with: Clause 89 Strategic Planning Principles
Clause 90 Council Plan
Clause 91 Financial Plan
Clause 92 Asset Plan
The Act says Council will consult on the Council Plan, Financial Plan, Asset Plan and Revenue and Rating Plan according to the engagement policy - that doesn’t have to exist until March 2021.
So there’s consultation. Probably after the fact.
And the wording in the Bill makes it clear that the Council Plan can only refer to ‘strategic objectives’ and ‘strategic measurements.’
In other words, nothing concrete. Residents can talk about ‘how’ things are done. Not ‘what’ is done. No measurement criteria, no deadlines.
The Community Vision at the start of the Planning and Financial Management Section is particularly important for MPs to interrogate, because it’s referred to a few times in the Act, as though it’s an important document that residents can prepare for Council to follow.
I’ve actually been involved in writing one. It’s rubbish.
I took part in Maribyrnong City Council’s (MCC) Vision 2040 project in 2018. I attended four full Saturdays over three months along with about 30 other residents. There were paid Council staff and paid speakers.
The process was a sham because of three key flaws:
1. Council had pre-determined the topics and the process for discussion and when residents raised issues such as high rates impacting elderly pensioners, or inappropriate development or lack of affordable housing we were told they weren’t appropriate for this process.
2. If residents tried to apply SMART principles for objectives, such as timelines or KPIs we were told that because this was a ‘Vision’ rather than a Plan, objectives weren’t appropriate.
3.If residents challenged any of the ‘predictions’ from Council relating to the impact of state or federal government decisions, residents were told the current exercise wasn’t about lobbying to change things, we had to accept all the predictions as given and work within that framework, whether we liked it or not.
I mention this, because this was my experience two years ago. And here in the 2019 Act, are the clauses that will continue to allow Council staff to frustrate residents who want to help write clear, simple guidelines for Council to adhere to.
Again, I stress the Act’s repeated reference to residents only being involved in ‘strategy’ and ‘indicators’ instead of ‘objectives’ and ‘measurements.’
So, yes, the Act ensures that residents are consulted on the Vision - but the resulting document is so vague, Council can do whatever it wants anyway. And there’s no link between the engagement policy in Part 3 and the Community Vision in Part 4.
But my favourite clause in Part 4- Planning and Financial Management is :
Clause 93: Revenue and Rating Plan
Here’s the total clause:
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.
Two sentences on the revenue and rating plan. And no mention whatsoever of residents or ratepayers. This could be because of the Review of the Local Government Rating System, that’s not due to report until March 2020.
Even so, it's insulting that such a contentious and significant are of Council responsibility is dismissed with one sentence.
(And having participated in writing submissions, reading submissions and public meetings to hear public concerns about the current rating system, I hold no hope whatsoever that there will be anything positive for ratepayers from the review’s recommendations.)
And so to the rest of Part 4 of the Act relating to Planning and Financial Management:
Division 2 - Budget Processes; Division 3 - Reporting; and Division 4 Financial Management.
None of these mention consulting with ratepayers. For residents trying to keep track of what money comes in and what goes out, and who makes what decisions to spend it, there is virtually no linkage in the Act between the Budget, the Annual Report and Financial Management statements.
The Budget is prepared for the Local Government Minister. The Financial Year statements are prepared for the Auditor-General. The Budget follows a template from the Minister’s office (which is currently rubbish) and the Financial Statements are set out like normal business statements.
And yet under Division 4 - Financial Management, there’s a clause regarding proper recording keeping.
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.
That’s it. That’s all there is.
No description of what a ‘proper’ Council record is. Scribble on a serviette? A text message from the coffee shop? A photo sent on email?
And no oversight whatsoever. I understand why there’s no reference to Council’s audit committee but where is the Auditor-General? Why are missing records not subject to a review by the Council Monitor?
So, under the Local Government Act, there is no deterrent for Councils to ensure they keep proper records. Because if a Council fails to provide an invoice or receipt, it just has to be noted in the Annual Report with an explanation.
Yet another insult to ratepayers in a Local Government Act that mocks democracy.
But for me, the ultimate Local Government Legislative insult is the Council Budget.
The Budget is the only point at which residents might have a slim chance of stopping Council from wasting money - and thereby keeps rate rises as low as possible.
The Act contains a very long list of Budget Processes. None involve residents. Or ratepayers.
There are no mechanisms for residents to be consulted at all. No briefings, no workshops, no meetings: nothing.
The Budget doesn’t even have to be set out according to the way Council runs, with each Service Division clearly showing staff,consultants and contractors, with relevant revenue, fees and expenditure allocated accordingly.
In fact, the current budget template is a parody on financial reporting. Budgets are currently set out according to Council’s Strategic Objectives - which come from :.....(drum roll) ………………The Community Vision.
So, Maribyrnong City Council’s budget is presented in the following sections:
Healthy and Inclusive Communities
Quality Places and Spaces
Growth and Prosperity
Mobile and Connected City
Clean and Green.
These are the headings from the Community Vision 2040 document I was involved in putting together two years ago. This document was not prepared with budgets in mind. In fact, as explained above, residents were directed away from numbers and measurements and coralled into deliberately vague motherhood statements.
And now, the headings form the basis of a budget.
This is absurd.
In old school-speak it is Pythonesque.
It is WOKE.
It is an episode of Utopia.
This Bill has not yet passed Parliament. It should not pass parliament.
MPs who vote in favour of this Bill will be voting for Council power over people power.
I’m not voting for that.