Tuesday, 7 March 2023


Local Government (Moira Shire Council) Bill 2023



Local Government (Moira Shire Council) Bill 2023

Second reading

Debate resumed on motion of Melissa Horne:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Peter WALSH (Murray Plains) (13:27): I rise to speak on the Local Government (Moira Shire Council) Bill 2023. This bill was introduced by the minister earlier today to dismiss the Moira Shire Council, to provide for the appointment of an administrator or a panel of administrators for Moira Shire Council and to provide for the expiry of the order in council and a second general election for the Moira council in 5½ years time.

In speaking on this bill, I do not think anyone goes into local government to be a councillor to do the wrong thing. I think the overwhelming majority of councillors right across Victoria stand for council and go into council to do the best for their community as they see it and as their community talks to them about what they need to do. In anything I say today I am not casting any aspersions on any of the individual councillors in this particular report. It is a very detailed report. The opposition has had it a for a couple of hours, and we have had a chance to look through it. I will leave the report to stand for itself. But as I said, the overwhelming majority of people go into council to do a good job for their community, and we need to bear that in mind in the context of what is in this report.

Two families have been severely impacted by a tragic fatality, which is part of this report, and our condolences go out to both those families for the devastation that this issue has caused them as it has unfolded. It is something that, on reading the report, has been in the making for a number of years with a number of different iterations of management and council and councillors, so, as I said, I do not think any one person is necessarily to blame for the issues that have led to this bill. Around some of the governance issues, one of the challenges we have is what, as I observed, was faced in Moira shire, which is that with the unfortunate death of one of their councillors early in this term and with a number of other councillors resigning and the countback scheme there have been five new councillors come in since the general council election, and that has led to a significant change in the dynamics of the council and not necessarily the best working relationship in that council. A series of events have led to where we are.

There are some underlying issues that I want to raise in talking about this particular bill. There is the issue of divided versus undivided councils, and I will put on the record that I am a very firm believer in divided councils. I think ratepayer residents need to know who their local councillor is. It makes for a lot better accountability of the councillors if people know there is a specific councillor that is their ward’s representative – whereas Moira was an undivided council. Particularly with the number of councillors leaving in this term and the new councillors being appointed on the countback scheme – the majority of councillors came from one particular part of the municipality – if you had actually had wards, that situation would not have arisen.

One of the things in the report is about making a recommendation to the Victorian Electoral Commission to have a look at the structure of wards in the Moira shire with the potential of bringing wards back into the shire to make sure you have that representation from across the whole shire area. This is particularly an issue for large country councils because there can be 50 or 100 kilometres between municipalities, and that can lead to some perverse outcomes if they are not divided councils over that time.

The other issue is the issue of countbacks versus by-elections. Again it is probably an issue of expediency. My assumption is that when the bill was done it was easier to have a countback so that the next person on the list actually gets put into council if there is a resignation or the passing of a councillor during the term of that particular council. The issue there is that the community actually do not get any say. If a councillor leaves, quite often that might inspire someone else to put their hand up if there is a by-election for that council position. So I think there is a good argument to have a situation where in the first two or three years of a four-year term if a councillor leaves you might have a by-election, but in the last 12 months or something you might think how you might manage that slightly differently. Underlying the issues that were raised that have led to this bill, we need a serious look at divided versus undivided councils and also how effective the countback scheme has been in getting those replacement councillors there.

The duration of the termination of the Moira shire for literally 5½ years is, in my view, probably excessive. That means that the communities that make up the Moira shire will have no elected representatives for 5½ years. I listened to the logic that was in the report and in the briefing that we had on this that that is effectively two election cycles and it gives time for the administrators to have a change of culture in the workplace and to change how the staffing and management of the Moira council work. But 5½ years is a long time. As we all know, Brimbank council was out for eight years, but if you look at the more recent one with the South Gippsland shire, they were effectively without councillors for two years and at the next election cycle there was an election for that particular council. So I just put on the record that 5½ years is a long time for the Moira communities to be without elected councillors – not that we are going to challenge that amount of time – but the minister could have looked at having an out-of-cycle election so that it was only three years or something like that rather than the five years that are there.

That is all I really want to say on this bill, but to go back to where I started, I do not think any of the councillors involved in this sacking went into council to do the wrong thing. I think they actually went into council with the best intentions for their community. It is unfortunate in a whole range of ways that we have ended up where we are with this bill before the house, because I do not think anyone on either side of the chamber necessarily feels comfortable when we get to the situation we have got to with this. But we have. The minister has put this bill before us, and we will not be opposing it.

Anthony CARBINES (Ivanhoe – Minister for Police, Minister for Crime Prevention, Minister for Racing) (13:34): I am pleased to follow the Leader of the Nationals in relation to a contribution on the bill following the Commission of Inquiry into Moira Shire Council. Clause 1 of course goes directly to the Local Government (Moira Shire Council) Bill 2023: to dismiss the Moira Shire Council; to provide for the appointment of an administrator or a panel of administrators for the Moira Shire Council; to provide for the expiry of the order in Council; to provide for a second general election for the Moira Shire Council; and to make consequential amendments to the Local Government Act 2020.

As the Leader of the Nationals said, it is a serious matter – a grave matter – to dismiss a council. I would just like to add that it is something that comes about when the community and the safety of that community and the council staff are at risk and when there is no other course of action open to the minister and to the government, particularly on the basis of the recommendations arising from the commission of inquiry. I will keep my remarks relatively short because I know there are other members, particularly members local to the Moira community, who would also like to make contributions before we conclude the debate on these matters. I do want to put on the record some of the other elements from the commission’s report and to commend successive local government ministers for their action that has led us to this point – both the former minister, now President in the other place, who appointed a municipal monitor for Moira shire, and the current minister the member for Williamstown, who acted, on receiving the monitor’s report, to put in place a commission of inquiry, which uncovered a number of shocking events. Having received that commission’s report, the minister tabled the report on the first possible date and introduced the bill that we are debating now to make sure the community of Moira are protected from further harm.

The government are also very serious about transparency in relation to those matters, which is why we are seeking to act swiftly with the cooperation of the house today. The community have the right to expect integrity from their councils and their elected officials, and I would agree with the Leader of the Nationals in relation to what drives people to serve their communities in local government, as it does in this place. It is to serve their community, to make it a better place, to lead and to get great outcomes for local communities where you live. That is what drives everybody, but there have clearly been some serious outcomes that the commission of inquiry found that need further investigation.

Probably the key things to put on the record in relation to the report on the council and its administration are the findings that there was a failure to ensure the health and safety of its employees at council depots and other outdoor locations, which may have even led to the preventable death of a facilities manager. The council put staff, contractors and residents at risk of exposure to asbestos by decisions to transfer asbestos-contaminated waste. It left Numurkah residents and the town at serious risk in the event of a major flooding incident by delaying the implementation of approved flood mitigation measures, mismanaged two major capital works projects in breach of its obligations under the Local Government Act and failed to provide adequate community representation and meet its obligations under the Local Government Act to apply community engagement principles. There are other serious matters, and I will let other speakers go to those in relation to the chief executive and management.

Clearly the next step is not only to pass this bill, hopefully with the support of the house, but for the appointment of an administrator for three to six months. I want to commend the work of the ASU, the Australian Services Union, for the support they are providing on the ground to the workforce in Moira shire. Often in local communities the further you get from town, health services and particularly our local government services are big employers in regional communities. To provide that support to workers and their families is critically important, and I want to commend the ongoing support of the ASU in relation to those matters. Over a six-month period there is the opportunity to appoint a panel of administrators to the council, and over 12 months there will be a council community-led leadership and civic participation program to pick up on the matters that the Leader of the Nationals raised in relation to those concerns about the Victorian Electoral Commission potentially conducting a local government representation review of Moira Shire Council to return to local elections in 2028.

As someone who served in local government as a ward councillor, I would agree with the Leader of the Nationals in relation to the accountability in relation to ward structures as opposed to broader and less accountable structures. Ward councillors provide an accountability in that the community understands who represents them, who they voted for and what their responsibilities are in the context of their broader council role – their direct responsibilities to specific communities. Those matters are well worth further consideration with the work that will continue with the local representation review. That is certainly something that continues to require work.

I commend the recommendations and the bill to the house, and I will conclude my remarks there. They are very serious matters. I want to thank the commission of inquiry for its work and the Minister for Local Government for her action. I hope for the continued cooperation of this house so that we can restore confidence, safety and support to the Moira community, both to staff and to the ratepayers. I commend the bill to the house.

Tim McCURDY (Ovens Valley) (13:40): I also rise to make a brief contribution on the Local Government (Moira Shire Council) Bill 2023, and I do so with mixed emotions. The Moira shire is a wonderful place to live, to raise a family and to do business in. It is a strong farming community backed up by a tourism sector that is extremely important to the economic development of the region. As a former deputy mayor, some 13 years ago, I have got a strong sense of commitment and passion towards this council and its councillors and the people who reside within the Moira shire.

Dismissing a democratically elected body is never a decision that should be taken lightly or done without the express interests of the constituents – in this case the ratepayers, councillors and management and staff of the organisation. But as always the people within the Moira shire, the people within the employment of the Moira shire and those that are elected to govern need to be protected and safe. I have only just seen the report. I was given a briefing of about 30 minutes earlier today which touched on some of the issues but was without any depth on the issues. So I am really flying a bit blind at the moment as to what is in the report, and no doubt in the fullness of time I will get to completely understand how we got to this point.

What I do know is that things have not always been right in the Moira shire. The Moira Shire Council has been in and out of the headlines for the best part of eight to 10 years with just little issues – there have been financial concerns, governance concerns and councillor concerns – but that is no different to any other council of the 79 councils in Victoria, and although the Moira Shire Council has had various issues over time, on the whole it has been able to function adequately. Although many ratepayers would say Moira has not been a functioning council, it is fair to say that local government authorities are all tarred with the same brush, and councils are a very easy target. Again, I will read the report and fully understand all of the issues, and I can only speak about what I have seen and what I have heard firsthand. Councillors on the whole I do not believe have been the primary root of the problem. Certainly there has been tension between councillors, but, again, that happens in every other council. Conflict between councillors and staff has also been present. Again, that is not a problem that rests on just the Moira shire’s shoulders alone.

One of the biggest factors that I have seen, as someone who sees from a short distance away, is the change in councillor representation over time. When the current Moira Shire Council was elected some three years ago there was a good spread of representation across the council, and that appeared on face value to represent the geography and the people of the Moira shire very well. And there has been a changing of the guard, one would say. There have been five councillors who have passed away or for other reasons resigned, which has significantly changed the dynamic of the current group of councillors. I do not have concerns with where the newly elected councillors reside but rather with how they function as a group. That is the concern. My personal view is that the current mayor does not deserve to be in this position. In light of this there appear to be circumstances outside of his control that have brought us to these current circumstances. And again, from my understanding over the years, former mayors have also guided the council in a firm but fair manner during their time as mayor. The report will go into more detail, and I am sure it will be detail that we the public have no insight into now as I speak but will become clearer over time.

Regarding the recommendation to appoint administrators for a period of five years, I agree with the member for Murray Plains, the Leader of the Nationals, who spoke earlier, that five years does appear to be excessive. This means it will be 2028 before democratically elected councillors will be returned to the Moira shire. I believe that there should be ample time in the next couple of years, even before the next election of councillors late next year, to rectify any systematic problems that exist, but as I say, with basically no knowledge of what is in the report, I still believe the Moira shire should have been given the right to govern itself after next year’s council elections. Again, we will not be challenging that, but certainly it is a concern I have.

I will close where I began. The Moira shire is an exceptional place to live. I have lived there for 35 years, and this is a speed hump along the way. We must get to the bottom of any concerns that have been raised and allow those who have had allegations made against them of any wrongdoing to have their say. I encourage people to allow this process to take place in a respectful manner.

Anthony CIANFLONE (Pascoe Vale) (13:45): I rise to speak on the Local Government (Moira Shire Council) Bill 2023. In doing so, I rise in my capacity as the state Labor member for Pascoe Vale in this place and as a member of the Victorian Labor government. However, I also rise to speak on this bill in the context of my former and widespread experience, having worked across all three levels of government, which included extensive experience through senior and junior roles across our state’s local government sector. And it is in that context that I am particularly shocked and saddened, as a former council officer, to be rising to speak on this bill, the substance of which I will turn to in a moment.

From my perspective, I very much had a wonderful experience overall as well as some extremely challenging times during my time in the local government sector as an officer. Following on from the 2018 state election, I made the very tough decision to finish up working as an adviser to the Victorian state Labor government, my last minister being John Eren at the end of the 2018 election period. I then commenced my first local government role as a senior strategic advocacy and engagement adviser with the City of Brimbank. This was a highly enjoyable role, where I had the opportunity to help the council and the community successfully advocate for a range of record outcomes, including around securing and solidifying the Melbourne Airport rail link as well as eventual commitments to upgrade Albion station so we can begin to realise the potential of the Sunshine precinct, as championed by the member for St Albans and the member for Laverton.

After around 2½ years I was pleased to work for CPR Communications, where I had the privilege to work with a range of local government clients from across the state to develop their respective advocacy strategies. Having worked with local councils, including Wyndham, Hobsons Bay, Hume and Merri-bek as well as with the Regional Cities Victoria coalition – the member for Shepparton of course is here in that respect – I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to help shape the advocacy and be a voice to influence outcomes across so many communities of this wonderful state.

From the end of 2021 up until I was very rapidly preselected as the new Labor candidate for Pascoe Vale, I took on a senior role with Darebin City Council. I developed the council’s extensive advocacy strategy, much of which I am so proud and delighted to see has been supported and responded to in various ways thanks to the championing of the member for Northcote, including through the new commitment for a mental health hub in that municipality as well as a perinatal parenting centre in the Darebin municipality. Whilst much of my time in councils was highly enjoyable, I did also experience various challenges, frustrations and concerns at an officer level, which I continue to have an ongoing appreciation of and respect for, and I acknowledge the ongoing good work of the Australian Services Union in advocating around these various issues.

While there are so many council officers that love their respective communities and love their jobs, I would really like to give a special mention to one particular group of council officers, our maternal health officers. And given this week it is International Women’s Day, I think it is particularly poignant to point out the important work they literally do at the coalface of each of our communities to keep our communities healthy and safe. Caring for mothers and young parents as well as newborns at their tender and vulnerable stages of life, maternal health workers really do a lot of the heavy lifting across our communities, which I believe deserves a lot more recognition. A workforce which is by and large made up of women, they are more often than not the first to offer a helping hand to new mums as well as very often the first from an official government services perspective to get the sense of a parent’s and a child’s wellbeing and their home environment, and more often than not they are some of the first to sense or detect instances of family violence or mental ill health in households and relationships. The thing about working in council buildings is that not only do you usually work in beautiful local suburban or regional town halls as an officer, but you also literally wind up sitting next to some of the most random other parts of council. And for me at Brimbank I spent a lot of time sitting next to and amongst the maternal health team, which is where I get this respect and appreciation from.

As a former council officer, with that experience and context, I rise to speak on this bill. It is a bill that seeks to address the serious governance failures highlighted in the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Moira Shire Council provided to the Minister for Local Government in February 2023. This report raises clear evidence of deep-seated, pervasive and continuing governance failures at the council. The bill is consistent with the Local Government Act 2020 conduct framework, and it contributes to strengthening integrity and good governance by improving the council’s governance. The state government takes the conduct of councils seriously by intervening early to prevent serious governance failures. It also acts decisively when councils fail their communities to ensure communities can get the best leadership that they deserve. The bill reflects the government’s commitment to ensuring strong and accountable local governments and the importance of our regions in contributing to the state’s local economic productivity. The bill will, as previously touched on, dismiss the Moira council, provide for the appointment of an administrator or a panel of administrators for the Moira shire, provide for a second general election in the Moira shire in years to come and make consequential amendments to the Local Government Act.

A municipal monitor Marg Allan was appointed in April 2022 under section 179 of the Local Government Act 2020 to monitor, advise and support the governance processes and practices of the council. This appointment was to assist the council in addressing a number of significant governance issues raised by the council mayor, chief executive officer and other parties. On 7 October 2022 the monitor provided the confidential report to the minister. The report found that councillors of the Moira Shire Council were not performing in their roles as expected or required of them; further, neither the mayor nor the CEO were performing their roles as required or expected and the councillors were unable to properly manage the CEO. The monitor further reported that Moira shire had numerous governance issues, a poor organisational culture with alarming reports of staff safety and culture, and poor community engagement practices and financial management of capital works. The monitor concluded that any improvements were likely to be lost once the monitor’s term had expired. The monitor noted that she had referred a number of matters to the local government inspectorate; however, they would take time to investigate or to be complete. Finally, the monitor concluded that due to the significance and extent of the issues at Moira shire, she had formed the view that further intervention beyond the appointment of a monitor was warranted to establish a culture of good governance.

The municipal monitor was initially appointed until January 2023; however, following such an alarming report, the minister appointed a commission of inquiry under section 200 of the Local Government Act 2020. The commission was established on 28 October 2022 to conduct the inquiry into the affairs of the Moira Shire Council, and the monitor’s appointment then ceased. The terms of reference saw the commissioners focus on the advice provided by the municipal monitor and the Australian Services Union as well as on matters affecting councillors and the administration’s performance of their roles. This was to include the effectiveness of governance arrangements in delivering services to constituents, including financial management and community engagement practices. The commissioners were required to report back to the minister by 28 February 2023, and they provided their final report on 26 February 2023. The commission’s report states that:

Governance of … Council has deteriorated such that the Council can no longer effectively carry out its responsibilities in accordance with the Local Government Act.

The report also finds that the CEO failed in her duties, including:

to comply with the Council’s Employee Code of Conduct …


to exercise responsible oversight of human resource management practices in breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

It finds that, in turn:

The Council failed to manage the performance of the Chief Executive Officer.

The report finds that council and its administration failed to take necessary action to ensure the health and safety of employees, managed the transfer of asbestos-contaminated waste in a manner that constituted serious misconduct and risked the health of staff and residents, delayed the implementation of already approved flood mitigation measures, failed to act in accordance with the financial management principles contained in the Local Government Act through the mismanagement of two major capital projects and failed to provide adequate community representation and apply the community engagement principles of the Local Government Act 2020 on a wide basis.

The issues identified in the commission’s report include the council’s abject failure to make decisions and take appropriate action that ensured the health and safety of employees and residents and its failure to provide adequate community representation. They also include major procurement breaches and mismanagement of key capital works. These all demonstrate extremely serious governance failures that warranted the dismissal of the council. Without this bill there is a risk of further deterioration of the governance at the council and the probity, integrity and accountability expected of local government. The community and Parliament expect the highest standards of governance, probity and representation from their councillors and council staff. The bill will ensure good governance in Moira is restored to provide the community with the leadership they deserve.

My thoughts during this period really are first and foremost with the staff and the community of Moira, as acknowledged of course by respective local members from that area, from Ovens Valley, and the Deputy Leader of the Nationals, who have already contributed. I would like to acknowledge the staff and community from the shire who have come forward, even at great personal cost, to shed light on this disgraceful situation. It is a very grave matter to sack a council, but when the safety of community and staff is at risk, there is no other course of action. I would like to commend successive local government ministers for their swift and decisive action – the current minister, Minister Horne, as well as the previous minister, Minister Leane – in this regard.

My thoughts and sympathies are with the staff and the community during this period. Moira of course is a wonderful community. I have had the privilege of visiting Moira in a personal capacity over many years with family and friends, including Cobram and Yarrawonga, and it is a community I have also had the pleasure of visiting with former minister John Eren. It is a tourism-rich visitor destination as well which has so much more potential as part of ongoing recovery and stimulus efforts. Just some of the destinations I want to mention include the Melbourne to the Murray silo art road trip, the Murray Farm Gate Trail, the Sun Country on the Murray Nature Escape and much more.

Matt FREGON (Ashwood) (13:55): I also rise to make a brief contribution on the Local Government (Moira Shire Council) Bill 2023. I note the Minister for Local Government is in the house, and I thank her for her work, which was no doubt very serious and difficult decision-making. I also should note at this time President Leane in the other place, the former minister, for his considerable work. As others have said, it is a very grave matter to terminate a council. It is the most serious intervention available to us here in this house. It would have to be an extreme case of failures and systematic failures for this process to occur, and, as the house has noted, we are rectifying that efficiently and very quickly. But when the safety of our community is at risk, there is really no other course of action. I would like to note something the Leader of the Nationals said. Members of our communities who put their hands up for local council do so with the best intentions and they should be commended for doing that, but obviously the reports from the monitor and the commission of inquiry are such that drastic action needs to be taken.

To protect the shire staff and broader community from further harm the minister has tabled this report with great urgency on the first possible date and introduced this bill. The bill provides for the dismissal of the Moira Shire Council under the Local Government Act 2020, in turn giving effect to a recommendation from the commission of inquiry for the Minister for Local Government. Further to that is a path of longevity, which will include appointing an administrator or panel of administrators for the Moira Shire Council and putting in place extensive assistance programs for support staff which have been adopted in consultation with the Australian Services Union, and I thank them for their work in protecting employees’ rights. It goes to this government’s ongoing work in regard to criminalising wage theft, industrial manslaughter and the intention to protect people at their place of employment at all times. Failures that are indicated by reports of this nature are very serious indeed, and I commend this bill to the house.

Motion agreed to.

Read second time; by leave, proceeded to third reading.

Third reading

Motion agreed to.

Read third time.

The SPEAKER: The bill will now be sent to the Legislative Council and their agreement requested.

Business interrupted under sessional orders.