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Local Government (Casual Vacancies) Amendment Bill

7 March 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I rise to speak in favour of the Local Government (Casual Vacancies) Amendment Bill on behalf the Greens and to indicate that we will be supporting the bill. I listened closely to the speech by the Leader of the Opposition in relation to the bill. It seems that there might be lessons to be learned by both sides of politics because I remember, when I first came into this parliament back in May 2021, one of the first matters that I dealt with at that time was the local government amendment bill. That reform piece had been knocking around for some time.

I know that a number of groups had been advocating for the bill to be advanced quickly because there was concern that we were heading into an election. What has happened, of course, is because the bill was dealt with quite quickly and quite close to the election, there were some unintended consequences. I am not seeking to make a partisan point; I am just pointing out that there have been some areas here on both sides of politics in terms of how the issue has been dealt with.

As I indicated, the Greens are supportive of this bill. After 45 local government council members lost their positions for failure to lodge their campaign donation return on time, we are pleased to see that the government has intervened. The bill is a simple one. It provides for a 10-day extension to those affected council members while ensuring decisions made by those councils since the election remain valid.

One of the four pillars that underpin the Greens political party is participatory democracy. We believe that real progress comes when enough people believe it is possible to make a difference and to do something about it. Of course, local government is often the most accessible level of government for people to participate in. Many people who run the council elections are new to the processes involved in public office and run without the support of political party machines. Indeed, this particular form was a new requirement brought in as part of the recent local government reforms.

I want to make it very clear that the Greens support requiring disclosure of campaign donations of this kind. Indeed, it was a Greens amendment that was made to the bill that required the disclosure of campaign donations prior to the campaign proper, as well. We certainly would not be supporting any moves to water down that requirement or to make it easier for council members to not disclose their donations, but we do recognise that something has gone awry in this instance and it needs to be amended.

There has been some commentary in the media about whether or not the information provided by the Electoral Commission was clear and whether or not the ECSA website was functionally effectively. I will not speculate on that. That is a matter for the minister to investigate and a matter that should be looked at as part of the broader investigation into what has happened here.

When 45 people make a minor administrative error it is possible that something has gone wrong. It is also vital, when we are considering this piece of legislation, that we consider the democratic principle; that is, the electors should get the council that they voted for. I am reminded of my days in the Senate when we saw the fiasco that unfolded a few years after regarding citizenship, when members of that place had failed to comply with what was quite a minor administrative decision and, as a result, we saw their electors being disenfranchised, and members who had not been democratically elected being elevated to that chamber on the basis of a minor administrative error.

I submit to you, Mr President, that if we were to allow the status quo to stand—that is, if this parliament was not to intervene and 45 councillors were to lose their positions—then I am concerned that those communities are going to be disenfranchised, and that is not a good thing for our democracy. While ECSA is already conducting 10 supplementary elections for positions that remain unfilled, we do need to, if we can, avoid the prospect of additional by-elections in affected council areas.

Whilst I notice that in some areas there may potentially be a countback mechanism, again, that is not quite the same as the communities getting the member that they voted for just a few months earlier. Not only is it preferable to avoid the cost of more by-elections, it is also vital that affected councils can continue their core business of serving their communities. Residents of local council areas deserve to have effective and functioning councils and so this extension will achieve that.

The Greens look forward to the results of the reviews being undertaken by the minister and the Electoral Commission to see whether there are any options for improving the Local Government Act. Indeed, I have indicated previously that I think there are things that could be done. I know the Hon. Mr Pangallo has mooted a number of changes as well that I think have merit. We are certainly keen to see what happens as part of this review and have a more fulsome discussion of those matters when they come before the parliament in due course. With that, I will conclude my remarks.