Major review of compliance under the 1989 Act
For our major review of personal interests returns, we obtained copies of primary and ordinary returns completed by all councillors between October 2016 to February 2020 at 78 Victorian councils. Primary returns are the first return submitted after a councillor is elected and ordinary returns are the subsequent returns. We excluded the City of Whittlesea, as a standalone review into councillor interests returns in that municipality had been completed a few months prior.
Our examination consisted of a high-level review of personal interests returns for 61 councils and a detailed review for 17 randomly-selected councils from across Victoria. For the high-level review, we looked at whether returns had been submitted correctly, within the required timeframe and compared disclosed property interests with rates notices. We conducted more rigorous checks in the detailed review, including internet searches, and checks of land titles and business registers.
Overall, we identified a high level of non-compliance, with 51% of councillors not completing at least one interest return strictly in line with section 81 of the 1989 Act. This ranged from one-off non-disclosures of interest to multiple non-disclosures of multiple interests, combined with issues such as returns not being signed or witnessed.
|Compliance submission of returns||Number|
|Number of councillors||650|
|Number of councillors who did not complete their returns in compliance with section 81 of the 1989 Act||332 (51%)|
|Number of returns reviewed||4,600|
Overall, we found 5% of councillors failed to disclose a land interest in all returns and 13% failed to disclose a land interest in one or more returns. We identified even higher levels of non-compliance in the detailed review.
|Non-disclosure of interests||Detailed review (147 councillors)||High-level review (503 councillors)|
|Failure to disclose office held - all returns||17 (12%)||1 (0%)|
|Failure to disclose beneficial interest in company - all returns||29 (20%)||6 (1%)|
|Failure to disclose land interest - all returns||9 (6%)||21 (4%)|
|Failure to disclose trust interest - all returns||10 (7%)||1 (0%)|
Where possible non-disclosures were identified, we contacted councillors to seek their explanation.1 As a result of our review:
- Seven councillors were interviewed
- 35 councillors received a written warning
- 85 received a letter reminding them of their disclosure obligations under the 1989 Act.
Further enforcement action is being considered in relation to one councillor.
Following the review, we surveyed the councillors whose interests returns had issues, as well as council staff from all 79 councils. We have used comments from our survey throughout this report to highlight issues councillors and staff had. Of the councillor respondents, 94% agreed that the available guidance on interests returns was insufficient and could be improved.
When asked about what the issues were, common themes were that:
- the legal terms used in the legislation and forms were hard to understand
- there was a lack of training and guidance
- the process was paper-based rather than electronic.
1 We did not contact all councillors with non-compliance issues, only those with recent or more serious failures.
Reviewed 09 December 2021