Local Government Amendment (Code of Conduct) Bill 2015
Mrs Armitage (Launceston) Mr President, I also support the principle of this bill. I believe it will considerably improve how code of conduct matters are dealt with by Tasmanian councils. One statewide panel will investigate code of conduct cases comprising two representatives with local government expertise and a lawyer. Previously, there were 29 council code of conduct panels in Tasmania. The panel will decide whether to investigate the complaint and whether to uphold all, part of it, or dismiss it altogether. A council alderman can be suspended for one month without allowances and this is in addition to cases where a member of a council may be required to apologise or attend counselling or training. There are many areas in the bill I have some concerns about, like many other members, and I note the myriad amendments that have come forward. I look forward to having the opportunity to take those back to the two councils in my electorate, possibly before we go to committee. It would be an advantage to be able to run that by them. Considering the amount of consultation that has occurred previously, before we make a lot of amendments, it would seem an appropriate course of action to share the proposed amendments with those councils that have been consulted.
Administration was one of the issues I noticed yesterday - knowing who we are going to get to perform the administrative duties and that it might be a very short amount of time they might be required, or it might be a long amount of time; knowing who could be employed to do that not knowing how much work they would or would not have. That was an issue. I appreciate that councils have been extensively consulted. I received a letter last month from the late President of the Local Government Association of Tasmania and Dorset Mayor, Barry Jarvis. Barry was passionate, as we know, about local government delivering for the people. His written advice on this bill was that it had widespread support from councils because it would give them strong support to deal with code of conduct matters. Council calls for this reform date back many years and a local government working group was formed in 2013 to review the code of conduct legislation for councils and to identify where it needed to be improved. The group was chaired by LGAT and also included representatives from across local government, the Integrity Commission, and the LGAT Standards Panel.
One of the other areas of concern was the AGM and whether it should be able to be removed from council's responsibilities and obligations. I notice that councils are legislatively required to have a strategic plan, which the community is invited to make submissions on. Councils such as the City of Launceston also have broader strategic documents, such as the Greater Launceston Plan and the City Heart project, which had over 3 000 people engaged in the community consultation process. There is also the question whether, additionally, contemporary local government should be required to have a community engagement strategy, indicating how the community will be engaged on key policy, strategic and operational matters. This community engagement framework should go through a community consultation process so that the community endorses the process. The delivery of the community engagement should be audited annually, similarly to the financial statements, signifying the fundamental importance of community engagement at the same high level as financial stewardship. Whether it is necessary to have an AGM, and I think many of us have been to many of the AGMs where there are more staff attending than community members. That is probably a sad reflection but maybe the community finds that the council is working well and do not find the need to come along and have their say. Also, there is always a cost to the community with the amount of staff who need to be there, particularly in councils where their AGMs are after hours. I believe the public has a great expectation of Tasmanian councils and I know this only too well from my time as an alderman and deputy mayor on Launceston City Council. Elected members put considerable personal time into carrying out their duties. It could be argued that many Tasmanians have come to regard councils as the grassroots of democracy. Councils offer many services nowadays apart from rates, roads and rubbish, and decision-making can be complex and challenging.
Councillors and aldermen are seen as accessible and approachable. Ratepayers rightly expect that councils will be accessible, responsible and accountable. They also expect that elected members will carry out their duties in a positive manner at all times. The Government has advised the proposed code of conduct model will be similar to LGAT's. It will cover areas such as conflict of interest, the use of council information and resources, the representation of council and relationships within council and in the community. I note local government will be consulted about this code of conduct model and that councils will be able to have input into it to keep it locally relevant. This legislation sets a standard of behaviour expected of those elected to councils around Tasmania. The three-strikes-and-you're-out rule affords councillors and aldermen the opportunity to learn from mistakes without it costing them their office. Suspension of office is only invoked after the code is breached three times. Aggrieved complainants can appeal to the Magistrate's Courts Administrative Appeals Division if they feel the panel has not afforded natural justice in the way it has carried out the investigation. As mentioned, Mr President, while I have a few questions and concerns about some areas of the legislation, I note many amendments are being proposed. I believe this bill will support councils around the state to deal with code of conduct matters, and I will support it into its committee stage.