Once every four years, Victoria holds its general council elections. This is generally a vibrant time for local government in Victoria but the pandemic and the resulting restrictions on movement created unprecedented conditions.
As the dedicated integrity agency for councils, we oversight councils, councillors, candidates and voters pursuant to the electoral provisions of the Local Government Act 2020. Accordingly, the year leading up to the elections, and particularly the four-week election period, is a busy period for the Local Government Inspectorate.
In the 2020 election period, we received 848 complaints – a 107 per cent increase on 2016. There was an even split between the number of complaints made by members of the public and those made by candidates. Most complaints (78 per cent) were generated from 22 councils with 20 councils generating no complaints at all. Three councils did not hold elections because they were under administration.
Alongside the numbers, we saw trends and heard anecdotal evidence that the behaviour of a number of candidates went well beyond what might be considered robust political activity. Long-time councillors reported to us that this was the most toxic and vitriolic election that they had ever experienced. In addition, we saw numerous examples of unethical and underhand behaviour – but it was behaviour which did not breach any laws. This is a concerning trend that we will continue to monitor.
We believe there were two major factors behind the rise in complaints and the deterioration of decent behaviour by candidates and their supporters.
In October 2020, Melbourne was coming to the end of one of the world’s longest and toughest lockdowns at that point in time. The COVID-19 restrictions which were introduced to stop the spread of disease limited resident movement to just 5km from home for only two hours per day, apart from permitted workers. The lockdown heightened the anxiety of the electorate and provided perhaps another reason for people to file complaints against candidates for allegedly breaching restrictions.
In addition, 2020 continued to see the rise in the dominance of social media. This was compounded by the collapse of local and regional newspapers during the year. Complaints about unfavourable interactions, false or misleading material or, at the extreme end, harassment and abuse on social media rose two and a half times (by 241 per cent) from 2016 figures. Social media is free and easy to use. Consequently, it is a very popular place to campaign – but regulation and limitations on content posting have been slow to occur. The ability for people to set up anonymous or unauthorised political accounts may have allowed some candidates or campaigners to post false, misleading or abusive material.
The new Local Government Act 2020 made some significant changes to the election process, such as introducing mandatory training for candidates. In this report, we have recommended further amendments to the legislation to rectify some ongoing election issues and to be authorised to issue penalty notices in lieu of pursuing potentially lengthy and costly prosecutions for minor infringements.
The 2020 elections were also the first occasion some complainants could use the protections under the Public Information Disclosure Act 2012. We worked with the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) to ensure that investigations and the processing of complaints were not delayed by the new protections.
I am pleased to publish this report as an insight to the key integrity issues, challenges and outcomes for the 2020 general council elections in Victoria. As my role as Chief Municipal Inspector only began in April 2021, I need to acknowledge the significant work of Dr John Lynch as acting CMI and the Inspectorate team over the election period and throughout most of 2020.
I also want to acknowledge the partnership with the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) and integrity agencies in receiving and referring complaints in a timely manner, and the hard work of legitimate candidates in campaigning during a challenging year.
Michael Stefanovic AM
Chief Municipal Inspector
Reviewed 23 June 2021