Adjournment Debate on Local Government Accountability

My adjournment matter tonight is for the Minister for Local Government and concerns the necessity for the state government to take action against dictatorial local governments who mistreat councillors.

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with Cr Heather Wellington, of the Surf Coast shire, who told me of the difficult situation in which she had been placed by her council. Cr Wellington is a very sensible person, and she lodged an FOI application, as a private citizen, to access two documents she knew existed in the shire. The shire refused that application.

Cr Wellington’s intent was to determine whether the documents to which she sought access should have been made available to the public. Someone then lodged an allegation with the local government inspectorate that Cr Wellington had misused her position as a councillor by making the FOI request in relation to the two documents.

Any citizen should have the right to make an application for access to documents held by the government, and that includes local government, unless there are extenuating security issues. Cr Wellington was rightfully absolved on 8 May by the local government inspectorate.

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner has reviewed Cr Wellington’s application and said that one document and the covering email of the second document should be released, but the shire is refusing to release those documents on the basis of a legal technicality that the information commissioner took too long to make the decision. The commissioner objects to that interpretation and is challenging it with the shire.

The shire is pursuing this pointless process using ratepayer money. Local governments, like all forms of government, should be accountable and transparent. Cr Wellington was merely attempting to uphold these principles, yet she continues to be met with intense obfuscation, investigation and antagonism. The shire’s refusal to release information demonstrates their clear preference for secrecy over transparency and accountability.

The action I seek from the minister is to establish what actions he and this government are taking to keep all local governments transparent and accountable while assuring Victorians that interference in the proper scrutiny of government by elected representatives is not impeded by executive officers and councillors.

30 May 2019