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28 November 2019

Second Reading: Local Government Bill 2019

I rise to speak on the Local Government Bill 2019. As was said by my colleague the member for Kew, it is important that we have this bill upgraded and improved.

It is needed. Our role of opposition is to make sure we scrutinise legislation and ensure that omissions and errors, like those that appear to be in this bill, are brought to light. I will focus mainly on the reasoned amendment that the member for Kew has brought to the table today.

I will talk in my role as shadow minister about the missed opportunity in the local roads part of the bill.

I will also talk about the effect this bill will have on committees of management in my electorate, the single wards issue and perhaps, if I have got time, a bit about the governance, training and issues that the bill does make some great changes around. I think for a start what I saw in this bill was a missed opportunity.

Local roads are looked after by local council under the Local Government Act 1989. In schedules 10, 11 and 12 of the Local Government Act 1989 that is covered; however, it has not been altered.

I would have thought that this was an opportunity to move those provisions to the Road Management Act 2004 and tidy this up, but what we have got now is quite a missed opportunity.

For small councils like Moyne, Glenelg and Warrnambool, it is challenging when they have got two documents and over 700 pages to try and work out what the situation is for them going forward with this new act. We are aware that local government are struggling, particularly in the country, to manage local roads.

I have visited 22 of the councils in regional Victoria over the last 12 months, from Wodonga to Portland to Bairnsdale and many more in between—right across the state—and what I am hearing is very consistent.

It is that what they liked was the Liberal program we had when Denis Napthine was our Premier, the country roads and bridges program, where they had certainty and they could actually make decisions around their roads by planning every year and getting a job done succinctly rather than having uncertainty.

They all talked about the country roads and bridges program as something that provided the money and certainty to be able to get on with doing the jobs that they understood because they knew their parts of the world better than anyone else.

What we have got with the current government is the fixing country roads program, and what the councils complained to me about was that there was just no certainty. The time frame when the announcement of a funding round occurred gave them very little time to be able to plan or have any ability to scope projects, because the time frame was very, very short.

That meant they could only put in applications for projects that were shovel-ready. They also told me that the Andrews Labor government seemed very keen to just have something that would have a ribbon able to be cut in a very short time frame.

That is not what we want to see. We want to see good governance, which we were hoping this Local Government Bill would provide. It does in some elements around training, which I will talk about later, but not around our roads, our rates, our rubbish and the foundational and fundamental things that local governments are responsible for. That leads me now onto the reasoned amendment.

One part of the reasoned amendment talks about the use of public money to advocate on political issues. Now in my part of the world we are struggling with rates because there are a lot of assets to be managed by the council. It is difficult. As I say, we have thousands of kilometres of roads, and the ratepayers are frustrated when they see councils using their ratepayer funds for political advocacy to service their needs.

As councillors often do, they promote themselves rather than actually get the job done that they asked to do as representatives. We have no issue with freedom of speech. We have no issue with people advocating for things that are relevant to the local government charter, such as advocating for more roads funding or even, in our part of the world for example, Warrnambool Base Hospital—a very needed service. But when we have money used to push political agendas, that is not appropriate.

Now I am not saying councils cannot have an opinion and be leaders and speak out on issues, but when they actually use money to influence the way they want community to think, that is just not appropriate, particularly when there is no jurisdiction for them to have any role to play.

It actually becomes not a leadership role, not a genuine effort to try and absolutely improve the services that they are responsible for, it becomes more grandstanding, and I do not see that as their responsibility. That is not within the jurisdiction. So I fully support that part of the reasoned amendment.

I also want to talk a bit about the fact that in our part of the world we have volunteers who do an extraordinary job. One of the things that has stood out to me the most since I have been in this role is what volunteers do. I was very community involved before I stood for this role as the member for South-West Coast, but nothing prepared me for how much I have seen since then of what volunteers do.

You just do not realise it, and in this role it is a great honour to be able to see how much people do. I see people who step forward in very small communities and they are on the CFA, they are on the hall committee, they are part of the football club, and they are involved in the kinder.

It just goes on, and there are only so few people in many of our small country towns. So when we have got committees of management, for example, that under the Local Government Act 1989 are indemnified—in other words, supported to be on these committees of management by the government and by the act—now being completely left out in the cold, I really do wonder what this government has against volunteers.

How can they actually be so disrespectful of the good work that our people do right across the state but very much so in the country because there are so few people—

Ms Settle interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: Well, I hope it is an omission, and I hope that you will take the opportunity over the summer to fix it, because maybe it is a genuine omission but we really do want you to have a think about what this lack of indemnity provision for the people on committees of management and managing assets like football club ovals et cetera actually does to our country communities. I mean, when you are talking little communities like Nelson, Narrawong, Woolsthorpe, Hawkesdale and Caramut, these are people who are giving a lot of their time, so please have a bit more respect.

If it is an omission, admit it, apologise and I will accept that. If not, I do not like your attitude.

A couple of last things I will talk about include the ward situation. Again, I refer to regional communities, who really do need to have a different provision than single wards because when you have got dispersed communities that have lower population centres and different community of interest areas you do need to have consideration of that. So I do think that it is good that the bill has made provision for that.

And credit where credit is due, I think that will work very well for our smaller country communities, so that is good. The last thing I want to talk about is I am quite pleased to see in the bill that provision is made for improving the capability of people who stand for these elected roles. I have been very much into the idea of doing education for becoming a representative.

I was on boards way before I even considered being a member of Parliament, and I took very responsibly those training elements so I could understand what good governance looked like. To have this training made mandatory and made a priority is very important.

I think that if you do not understand your role you cannot do the good job that you need to do. So I endorse the fact that that has been put into the bill, and we should be making sure our representatives are supported and that they improve their knowledge, so that is good.

I do have a minute left, so I will just go back to the roads, because it is a real issue in my part of the world. Local roads are a real challenge simply because the money is not there for local councils to be able to do their job well. It is a real shame that the country roads and bridges program that we had under Premier Denis Napthine in the Napthine government era has not been brought back.

If you go around the councils, as I have been doing, you will hear that request. All everyone said to me is, ‘Please bring back the country roads and bridges program’. It is not about grandstanding and looking for projects that are shovel-ready and that you are able to cut a ribbon on, it is about being responsible and governing responsibly.

The government should not just be looking for ribbons to cut; it should be providing roads that are safe and well-managed and done well once when they are fixed or when they are built so that we can carry goods to market and we can be a productive state.

The cost of maintenance on trucks and transport is excessive at the moment because the potholes are turning into craters, and the safety of our community is at risk.

If this government was serious, it would have used this opportunity to put local government roads under the Road Management Act 2004.