Presidents comment – Councillor Lambros Tapinos President Victorian Local Governance Association
Victorian Local Government Elections during a Pandemic
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began to disrupt Australian communities, the 2020 Victorian local government elections were set to break new ground.
With the Local Government Act 2020 passing into law, significant reforms to local government were expected to coincide with the election of over 600 local government councillors across 76 (of 79) Victorian local government areas.
The complication of the COVID-19 pandemic and its public health disruptions have highlighted the challenges for councils implementing ambitious state government reforms. The spotlight also turned to the democratic complexities of holding free and fair elections in an environment where the campaign activities of many candidates was limited.
The onset of the pandemic has again demonstrated the resilience and adaptability of local government and its capability to service communities at a time of need.
To defer or not to defer
The Victorian Government decided the elections would go ahead as planned via a postal election.
The Minister (under s257(5) of the Act) may delay scheduled elections ’to another Saturday as nearest as possible to that election day’. However, longer deferral periods may carry greater complexities for councils and stakeholders.
Significantly, sitting councillors were elected for a four year term that ended on 24 October 2020.
It is arguable that beyond that date there would be no mandate for those councillors.
The arguments over deferral posed a ‘catch-22’.
For the elections to go ahead during a pandemic the limited campaigning capacity was argued to favour incumbent councillors.
But a deferral would also extend the term of those same incumbents, giving them continued profile and removing the community’s opportunity to have their say on their elected representatives in that time.
The Act provides in s257(5) that the Minister, in ordering deferral, would need to be satisfied that the ‘event or circumstance could adversely affect the conduct of the general election’.
The Minister considered advice from the Victorian Electoral Commission regarding its capacity to conduct the election safely.
Campaigning activities during these elections was evidently changed.
With Victorians under COVID-19 restrictions, for many candidates campaigning was limited to what could be done from the confines of their own homes.
It was said to be a truly ‘social media’ election.
While the use of social media in election campaigning is becoming a global trend, this did create angst for some in Victoria.
As we go to print with this article, I can report that the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) has now declared the results of all Victorian council elections with 313 new councillors and 24 councils with a majority of women. Fifty-five percent of councils have a majority or equal number of women and men.
The Victorian Government has set a target of 50 percent women’s representation by 2025 in its Gender Equality Strategy, Safe and Strong. In 2020 we have attained 44 percent.
My congratulations to all those who put their hand up to run and congratulations and welcome to all returning and new councillors for their four year term.
2020 what a year!