Once again this newspaper is being produced in a Council area which has had its democratically elected representatives removed by another sphere of Government. Following amalgamation and two years of State appointed Commissioners, just 15 months after residents in Melbourne's inner City of Darebin elected their first Council, the Minister for Local Government has suspended the nine Councillors for a period of 12 months.
Council and the Darebin community are now in the hands of a State appointed Administrator and the Chief Executive Officer. The Administrator, Don Gillies, a former Chief Commissioner, believes his recent experience in this role gives him all the qualifications necessary to run the City of Darebin. However, he lacks the one essential qualification of those he replaces, endorsement by the electorate.
An unsuccessful candidate at the recent elections in a neighbouring Council, the fact Mr Gillies could not convince these voters about his abilities, leaves many in Darebin cold and asking, is this yet another job for the boys?
The suspension of the Council follows a $100,000 inquiry, instigated last December by Minister Maclellan, all at the ratepayers' expense. Despite a finding of no wrong doing by the Council, no financial mismanagement, corruption or community unrest, the Inquiry undertaken by David Elsum still made three recommendations regarding Darebin's future. These included mediation to resolve an uneasiness in the relationship between the CEO and Council; appointing an administrator; or dividing the Municipality up among surrounding Councils.
Following the release of the Elsum Report, Council's response to the Minister was to accept mediation. The Minister opted for suspension of democracy! Under an Administrator, the gate is now wide open for the last scenario, that dividing the Municipality is a likely recommendation at the end of the 12 month period. This would have been a far more difficult task had the elected Council still been in place.
Claiming the appointment of a mediator was 'unrealistic', the Minister said that the residents and ratepayers of Darebin have born the brunt of a Council consumed by internal bickering and factional warfare for too long. Voters in Darebin had seen fit to elect endorsed Labor candidates in all nine Wards. The fact that the Council was not voting nine all on every issue is surely a healthy situation, or would the Minister have been happier had it rubber stamped every issue?
Differences of opinion on issues were not making the Council unworkable. Quorums were achieved, so where was the problem Mr Minister? The crux of this trampling on democracy harks back to the fact that our Constitution still allows for one sphere of Government to remove another democratically elected sphere.
Imagine the following, a breakdown occurs in relations between the Head of Premier and Cabinet and State Government over allegations of poor management and questionable letting of contracts. The Federal Government removes the Victorian Government and appoints an Administrator to run the State together with the Head of Premier and Cabinet. Far fetched (and Constitutionally not possible between these two spheres), this is exactly what the Victorian Government has dished out to the people in the City of Darebin!
With the Darebin situation arising from differences between the Council and CEO over an industrial matter last year (that has been resolved for some months now), the removal of the Council casts grave doubts over the role of senior Victorian Local Government staff and who exactly they are accountable to - the elected Council on behalf on the local community or the State Government? This is further exacerbated by recent legislation now requiring Councils to obtain Ministerial approval before they employ or sever a contract with their CEO.
Anyone concerned about the future of Local Government in Victoria is urged to read David Elsum's Report. Particular attention needs to be drawn to Part Four of the Report and his personal views concerning alternative governance and optional commissioners.
So has the Minister merely flexed his muscles in regard to Darebin, as a warning to other Councils to toe the line, or is this the writing on the wall that further major change to the role of Councillors is in the pipeline?
It is a sorry situation for Local Government in Victoria and one which demands Local Government in other States keep firm control of the reform process or be prepared for a mere agency role at the hands of your State Government.