The 2020 local government elections saw the highest average voter turn-out and were considered a ‘win for democracy’. However, they also saw the highest number of complaints. We received 848 complaints, more than double the number of complaints in 2016. We saw complaints in relation to social media triple.
We are Victoria’s lead integrity agency for councils but work with other agencies to monitor local government elections. Our work would not be possible without the assistance of the VEC, Victorian Ombudsman, IBAC and the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. Due to the restrictions on movement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also worked with Victoria Police.
We are also thankful for the assistance and support of councils for sharing information and working with us to refer information. We also had support from the local government sector and a number of ‘election watchers’ who suppled information and supporting evidence for their complaints.
Our analysis of the data and trends of complaints related to the 2020 elections lead us to propose a number of recommendations to improve the transparency and democracy of Victoria’s local government elections. These recommendations are:
- Councils must be allowed to publicly correct misinformation spread by candidates. To ensure this, Section 69 of the Act must be amended to require councils to adopt an election period policy based on the model election period policy prepared by LGV, which also incorporates flexible election period policies and allows for misinformation to be corrected.
- The eligibility of candidates must be checked at the time of nomination to ensure robust processes are in place to prevent people who have criminal records or have been declared bankrupt running for public office. As such, regulation 24 of the Local Government (Electoral) Regulations 2020 should be amended to require candidates provide a financials records check providing proof of no current or past bankruptcies, a police clearance certificate and a 100-point identification check when nominating for election.
- We must work with the VEC to provide candidates and the community simple and helpful guidance and education on: the rules candidates need to follow
- election material should be authorised
- constitutes a misleading or deceptive matter
- role in electoral matters.
- To help regulate the use of social media in elections, we recommend the amendment of:
- Section 3(1), defining electoral material, and
- Section 287 Printing and publication of electoral material to encompass social media and other forms of electronic communication.
- The IBAC investigation into City of Casey has highlighted the need for integrity and transparency in relation to campaign donations. We recommend the Act be amended to include language consistent with clause 338 of the Local Government Bill to streamline the submission of campaign donation returns and improve transparency.
- As the main local government integrity agency, we should be resourced to adequately manage and scrutinise the campaign donation returns process.
- That the Act be amended to give the CMI specific power to issue infringement notices and that regulations be made prescribing offences and penalties in order to deter offenders and reduce the cost to the taxpayer of pursuing minor offences through the court system.
When compiling the information needed for this report, we were concerned about a number of trends, including bullying and harassment. A number of councillors interviewed for this report raised concerns about social media and the way it easily enables bullying and harassment during the campaign period. They feared that the poor behaviour seen during the 2020 elections will deter quality candidates in the future.
However, some councillors we spoke to also believed that the public were able to see through this behaviour and voted for good candidates regardless of negative and toxic campaigning. We hope the recommendations in this report are acted on in order to ensure a fairer democratic process in the next local government elections. We will continue work with other government agencies to monitor trends in local government elections and help ensure a fair and democratic election process.