COVID-19 challenged all Victorians during 2019–20. Our movements were limited, and we were asked to work remotely, if we still had a job. The pandemic also changed the way Victorian local government was forced to operate. Suddenly, council staff were asked to work from home and council meetings were moved online.
In these unprecedented times, coronavirus has shown us that transparency in local government is vital. It has also shown us the value in having a robust integrity system which can oversee the decisions made on our behalf—even if they are taking place behind closed doors.
During the first half of 2019–20, the Inspectorate published one major report into Yarriambiack Shire Council, in Victoria’s north west. The report made a number of findings and recommendations to improve the council’s procurement and purchasing systems and policies.
The Inspectorate also recommended to the Minister for Local Government that a Monitor be appointed to Whittlesea City Council pursuant to section 223CA of the Local Government Act 1989.
The second half of the financial year saw the enactment of the Local Government Act 2020 and the commencement of the Act’s first two tranches in April and May. The new Act was the largest reform to the local government sector for 30 years. It aims to improve local government democracy, accountability and service delivery.
Inspectorate staff were able to seamlessly incorporate the new legislative regime into their day-to-day operations. The second two tranches of the Act commence in October 2020 and July 2021.
Administratively, in April 2020 the Inspectorate was transferred from the Department of Premier and Cabinet to the Department of Justice and Community Safety as part of machinery of government changes following the resignation of the Special Minister of State, the Hon. Gavin Jennings MLC, from Parliament. I would like to express my sincere thanks to both departments for their assistance in achieving a smooth transition.
The new Local Government Act 2020 contains numerous offences directed at councillor behaviour. The Inspectorate typically launched 5–10 prosecutions a year under the Local Government Act 1989. In some areas, such as campaign donation return submission, prosecution has proved problematic in achieving effective compliance.
The Inspectorate has requested that the Department of Justice and Community Safety support amendments to the new Act to convert ‘low-impact’ offences to infringements. This would enhance the Inspectorate’s effectiveness and efficiency and ensure consistency in the application of the Act’s penalty provisions.
In April, the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 inserted temporary measures into the 2020 Act to deal with impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on council operations and the Inspectorate’s work.
As with the majority of the Victorian public service, Inspectorate staff started working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in late March 2020. Working from
home presented some challenges for the Inspectorate, most notably stopping us from attending councils and delaying some interviews.
The coronavirus restrictions also affected the Inspectorate’s education and prevention functions in the second half of the year. I commend the professionalism and dedication of all Inspectorate staff in meeting these challenges.
At the time of publication, we are past the 2020 council election period. The Inspectorate received a record number of election complaints for the October 2020 elections, which absorbed almost all of the Inspectorate’s resources and will be the subject of a dedicated report, initially to the Attorney- General and the Minister for Local Government, and then released to the general public.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge David Wolf, the inaugural and long-serving Chief Municipal Inspector, and his contribution to ensuring the integrity of the local government sector. David served from 2009 to 2013 and again from 2016 until January 2020. The Inspectorate was fortunate to have a person of David’s dedication and drive at its helm over those years.
Dr John Lynch PSM
Acting Chief Municipal Inspector