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The "C Word" in Local Government

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

For decades the C Word has been the word everyone wants to avoid discussing, but it’s time we tackled the issue head-on.

Recently, retiring IBAC Commissioner, Robert Redlich highlighted that soft corruption was the largest risk within Government. So, what is soft corruption?

Soft corruption is any unethical conduct that seeks to benefit the perpetrator and or their cronies without technically breaking the law. Unethical transgressions are carried out in the quest for political power or personal benefit.

Those who engage in soft corruption care more about political power and personal gain than the public good. Now set that statement against your local council and think of the ways in which the system is being “gamed” and by whom.

IBAC’s own research into the matter found the following results from local Council staff, and they are staggering:


In local government, the soft corruption risks are in the awarding of contracts, the choosing of suppliers, the outsourcing of council functions, the procurement of goods and services, and the hiring decisions of managers.

The main culprit of this is the fact that any commercial items are treated as commercial in confidence and are “hidden from public view”. This means that the public does not see the details of all tenders, parties tendering and the evaluation of said tenders. We have uncovered examples of tenders being chosen that were up to 3 times the cost of the lowest qualified provider, without being able to verify or demonstrate any value for money in the decision.

So secretive is this culture, it is giving rise to a system open to abuse by many and there is literally no oversight or regular random auditing of councils. There is no external body that can investigate these matters fully. Many think IBAC is the key, but don’t understand that IBAC is very limited in what it can investigate, and it will only investigate where there is already significant evidence of corruption. How does a whistleblower be taken seriously if they see something clearly but cannot document the corruption with hard evidence?

Council officers and executives know the system well, whether or not they are gaming it for personal benefit is something that is very hard to ascertain, but if IBAC remains deeply concerned, you can bet they know the system is being abused.

In a $12 Billion per year local government economy, there is a lot of opportunity for soft corruption, manipulation, misinformation and ultimately a good chance that large amounts of money are benefitting people other than the public interest.

Another key area is planning approvals. We already know IBAC has been investigating this issue in the City of Casey and that the council was sacked over it – but how many others have their fingerprints on this issue in other councils? The key issue here is that the longer a councillor or staff member remains on council, the easier it is for them to learn to, or be tempted to graft the system.

Planning decisions are easy to rush through, justify and argue that “if the developer goes to VCAT they will win anyway” but the truth is, there is no more important issue to push back on for the community. Overdevelopment continues to be the biggest gripe in most communities, yet we see councillors over-justify these applications regularly. What we may never know is the connections, side discussions, and secret messages between some developers, some council officers, and councillors.

IBAC recently conducted an investigation into perceptions of corruption. In local government, 90% of people knew what corruption was, 87% knew that corruption happened in government, yet only 52% of suppliers to local government and 62% of staff believed authorities had the actual ability to DETECT corruption.

The only way to fix this issue is to make EVERYTHING and I mean everything public.

In California, any decision that involves public money is fully public, tenders, planning applications, anything, and perhaps this is the model that Victoria needs.

We need a model that says “if you conduct ANY business with local councils, everything will be public” – and why not?

Surely there can be no higher standard than the use of public money?

We know that the new (since 2020) Councillor and Senior staff “public interest disclosures” are not even being screened by Council Audit Committees to identify any conflicts or potential risks.

We also know that the Local Government Act makes it abundantly clear that managing conflicts of interest are purely a matter for individual councillors. This means that a councillor has all the responsibility to declare and manage conflicts of interest, but there is literally no one looking at this issue to ensure adherence! There is no agency currently tasked with investigating associations, assets, potential conflicts, and relationships between parties in local government.

Is it time that the local government act was overhauled to make EVERY dollar spent be open to the public? After all, it is our money.

Perhaps it is also time to limit Councillor terms to 2 terms (8 years) given this is boardroom best practice?

Perhaps it is also time to limit senior executives and CEOs to contract tenures that ensure rotation, to reduce corruption risks.

Is it time that nothing was hidden from us in the interest of managing corruption risks?

Is it time that a serious anti-corruption model was adopted by Local Government in Victoria?


We think so.









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