The Local Government sector is facing some damning reviews.
Already under pressure over Councillor Conduct, the sector is facing some hard truths.
Scan the recent VCAT lists and you will see that Councils make up a very large portion of the decisions. Sure many of them are planning matters, but some, like Dance vs Hume City Council give a glaring insight into what is happening in our local councils.
Trevor Dance was taken to a Councillor Conduct Panel for being unwell. He claimed mental health issues and was unable to participate in person in a hearing, he had offered to participate by other means. According to VCAT, his human rights may have been infringed, and he was found guilty of misconduct and suspended from office, for claiming that his mental health was at a very low place.
This comes on the back of the tragic news that a Casey Councillor took her own life after alleged comments made to her by a watchdog. Yes, she was being investigated by the watchdog for potential offences, which she had always strenuously denied, but no evidence had been tabled showing any of those allegations to be true.
Now her family and friends want answers, and they deserve them. The mental health of those being investigated is of serious importance. A parliamentary enquiry was established to investigate how this happened.
But it gets worse, I have spoken to several councillors, mostly women, who detail allegations of repeated and sustained sexual harassment, verbal abuse, bullying and intimidation and stalking. These complainants are serving councillors and they are struggling.
They are struggling with a system that does not protect them. A system where Worksafe Victoria has designated Councillors as “non-employees” and therefore not afforded ANY protection by Worksafe, their laws or their investigative powers.
For many, this leaves them in the position of resorting to Victoria Police. The problem here is that the burden of proof and evidence is a high bar. Many of the tactics and actions deployed against them are well designed, completed one on one, and done in a manner that is hard to trace to its source. Several of these councillors, who happen to be mostly women, know that the tactics employed against them are not from angry community members, but rather from their own colleagues around the council chamber.
Whether it is fake letters from fake addresses, sent to the council, to be read in open sessions with the aim of ruining reputations, fake petitions, constant negative Facebook comments from “mates” of opposing councillors, snide sexual comments about their appearance or performance in the bedroom, these councillors, in fact, any councillor, should never have to put up with this behaviour.
It is fine for strong, robust debate, in the chamber, but it is another to illegally trawl through a councillor’s email account, likely with the help of council staff, to find evidence that can be used against them. It is not OK to ever breach a councillor’s right to privacy in their council emails.
We now have around 48% of all serving councillors being women, it was achieved without any need for mandated quotas. But it will not last, if the behaviour within councils isn’t changed.
The true culture of Local Government in Victoria is in a very bad state. Perhaps not all Councils, but most, have this embedded, factional, controlling, unhealthy, and sick system of behaviours that no real workplace would ever tolerate.
Amidst this, we have a Local Government minister who has mostly sat on her hands. Last year, the previous minister Shaun Leane instigated a “culture review” of Local Councils. It was a farce; it was used to embolden the behaviours I have listed previously. It was tokenistic and did not get to the truth of the matter. In many councils, the factional power group and long-term serving councillors are the abusers.
So, what is it that drives this behaviour from some councillors towards others? The answer lies in the power matrix – ego and emotion easily become their own self-aggrandising echo chamber.
A typical Mayoralty delivers a salary of $120,000 plus benefits including a car and a deputy mayoralty delivers around half that. It’s not just the money – but it helps. The power dynamic is more about driving the policy and direction of the Council. It’s about legacy, names on plaques and ceremonial opportunities. For many, this is “their identity”. Long-term councillors will fight tooth and nail to retain their position and their power. It is about having a leading hand in approving the mega development and changing the landscape of our communities through planning applications. The mayor and deputy are also the councillors who have the most access to staff. This equals council influence. There is a compelling reason that the "game of thrones" narrative exists here. Nowhere else in any form of government can 2 roles control, shape and drive their agenda through local development and infrastructure spending. Nowhere else can someone get their name on so many plaques, policies, and decisions. It’s no wonder developers have long been rumoured to court these people.
The only way to stop this private club mentality is to implement caps on councillor terms to 2 or 3 terms maximum, no matter what.
Several Councillors have left Local Government within the first 2 years of being elected. Most are women. Having spoken to most of them, there is a common theme, they sight that their mental health couldn’t endure the constant harassment. In many examples, the harassment allegedly came from other women. This is a sector that proclaims it wants more women, but it seems that it only wants “some women” and not all.
For those who manage to navigate the fray, there are also quasi-judicial complaints courts. Councillors have access to lodging councillor code of conduct complaints. This sees an arbiter or in the most serious cases, a conduct panel, hear the complaints. Often, this will involve the applying councillor and the responding councillor needing to hire lawyers to represent them, it what can only be labelled as “kangaroo courts”.
These “hearings” are closed to the public, but their results are not. A review of recent decisions reveals that a record number of complaints are being shunted through this system, a large number are being dismissed, and a portion of Councillors are being found guilty of misconduct.
It is in the detail that a theme emerges. Some Councillors are gaming the system and using these processes to politically attack and destroy the credibility of their opponents.
These hearings cost ratepayers many thousands of dollars, and accused councillors generally have the right to ratepayer-funded legal defence, as they should.
This is the real state of Local Government Victoria.
A system that doesn’t celebrate women. A system that embeds a culture of nasty political attacks.
A culture that is collusive, secretive, and highly stressful.
A culture that leaves many men and women in tatters, a culture that staff are accused of enabling, a culture that CEOs are accused of assisting, a culture that no other Victorian workplace would ever tolerate for fear of criminal prosecution.
Not in local government, because there are zero protections for councillors who are genuinely bullied, targeted, ridiculed, stalked, harassed, and driven out of office.
It is a culture at the top that needs to be exposed for what it is – immoral, likely illegal, and disgusting. If we want good leadership, we need a clean out of long-term councillors and long-term staff that perpetuate this garbage.
We are calling for an urgent, independent public commission into the sector, to:
Investigate all complaints of sexual harassment, bullying, stalking and general harassment
Investigate the councillor conduct system and make it fully public
Investigate all senior Council staff and their role in targeting councillors
Investigate the abuse of Council resources
Publish all findings about councillor and senior staff behaviour