Here is the full exchange between Tim McCurdy (MLA, Murray Valley) and Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell on the Australian Services Union’s calls to sack Cr Julian Fidge.
Mr McCURDY (Murray Valley)
I rise to draw the attention of the Minister for Local Government to the concerns we have about good governance at Wangaratta Rural City Council, and the action I seek from the minister is that she take steps to help ensure good governance at Wangaratta Rural City Council and to clear up any confusion in the community about the future of the council and about the standards of behaviour expected of councillors. I know that the minister has taken a close interest in developments at Wangaratta Rural City Council and has acted within her powers under the Local Government Act 1989.
The Australian Services Union has recently been vocal in the media, making serious allegations about an elected councillor and calling for the minister to dismiss that councillor. The union’s claims are causing confusion and uncertainty in the community, because it is telling the public that the minister can and should dismiss the individual councillor, nominating a number of provisions of the act that it claims to be relevant, so there is uncertainty as to the future of the council. Since the council elections last year there has been a significant change in councillors.
Wangaratta has now been thrust into the spotlight, and my office continues to field requests from constituents for clarification as to the powers of the Minister for Local Government. As I move through the community, the no. 1 issue that people are talking to me about certainly relates to that councillor and the powers of the minister. Governance at the Rural City of Wangaratta has not been compromised at this point. However, it is important that our community fully understands this issue, and therefore I and the wider community seek clarification on this very important matter.
Mrs POWELL (Minister for Local Government)
The member for Murray Valley raised with me the issue of good governance at the Wangaratta Rural City Council. He made reference to confusion in the community about the future of the council, which has been caused in part by public comments issued by the Australian Services Union (ASU). The action the member for Murray Valley is seeking is that I take steps to ensure good governance in the council and to clear up any confusion about the future of the council and standards of behaviour expected of councillors. I thank the member for Murray Valley, who has been keeping me informed of developments in the council and of concerns of the public and businesses in Wangaratta. Because of these community concerns, and those of the member for Murray Valley, I wrote to the council, asking it to provide me with a new councillor code of conduct by 30 April. The code of conduct was developed and signed off by all councillors, and it was sent to me on 29 April.
The member for Murray Valley spoke about the comments in the media of the ASU. The union has also written to me making serious allegations against a single Wangaratta councillor. The union is demanding that I sack this councillor and claiming publicly — and incorrectly — that as minister I have the power to do so. A letter sent to me by the ASU dated 24 May states:
I am calling on you to use your jurisdiction as minister of local government to dismiss Cr … under sections 76D(2)(c), misuse of position, 76E, 76E(1) and 76E(2), improper direction and improper influence of the Local Government Act 1989.
The union has misunderstood the act. As Minister for Local Government I do not have power under these sections to dismiss a councillor. It is a very serious allegation to claim someone is in breach of section 76D of the act. This section relates to misuse of position by councillors to gain or attempt to gain advantage for themselves or another person or alternatively to cause or attempt to cause detriment to the council or another person. Severe penalties apply to breaches of this section of the act, with a maximum penalty of 600 penalty units, which is an $84 504 fine or five years imprisonment or both. Any allegation of a section 76D misuse of position offence should be reported to the local government inspectorate, as the appropriate authority, for investigation and prosecution in the courts if appropriate. Only the courts can find someone guilty of a section 76D offence. Section 76E provides that councillors must not improperly direct or improperly influence council staff in the exercise of their powers. Neither of these provisions allow the Minister for Local Government to dismiss a councillor. I repeat: the union has misunderstood the act. Section 76D offences are for the courts to determine.
To help clear up public confusion, which is what the member for Murray Valley has asked me to do, I advise that the provision that relates to a minister dismissing councillors is section 219 of the act relating to suspension of councillors. It reads:
(1) The Minister may recommend to the Governor in Council that all the Councillors of a Council be suspended, if the Minister is satisfied on reasonable grounds —
(a) … that there has been a serious failure to provide good government; or
(b) that the Council has acted unlawfully in a serious respect.
(1A) Before making a recommendation under subsection (1)(a), the Minister must consider what steps the Council has taken to address and remedy the difficulties underlying the failure.
Again I note this section does not allow a minister to dismiss a single councillor; the act requires the minister to dismiss the entire council and only after steps have been taken by the council to address its failures.
Councils are democratically elected by their communities to represent the best interests of those communities. Sacking a council must be the absolute last option. But I have taken action.
Because of the concerns raised by the Wangaratta council and by the member for Murray Valley and others, I have been monitoring the governance of the council. There was a significant incident on Tuesday, 7 May, when a councillor who had just come back from stress leave resigned, the CEO was rushed to hospital and two senior council staff took sick leave. I acted quickly to appoint Mr Peter Stephenson as an inspector of municipal administration to Wangaratta Rural City Council to ensure the good governance and smooth running of the council. The inspector will report to me monthly on the conduct of the council and the relationship between the councillors and the council staff. The inspector will give advice to the council and the staff to help this council deliver good governance, hopefully for its full term.
However, I state very clearly that the problems within the Wangaratta council have to stop. They must be resolved for the good of the Wangaratta community. It is completely unacceptable that a competent and energetic councillor has decided to resign as a result of the behaviour and pressure that have gone on in this council. The coalition government wants to attract top quality candidates and exceptional women candidates to consider serving on council, and what has been happening at Wangaratta is working against the interests of the sector. Being elected is not a licence nor an indemnity for bad behaviour. Under the act all councillors are expected to act with integrity at all times and to treat all persons with respect.
The inspector will report to me on governance at Wangaratta, and I can assure the member for Murray Valley and his community that I will take whatever action is needed to ensure good local government for the Wangaratta Rural City Council.
This post is part of the thread: Council Dramas – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.