Victoria held its local government elections in October 2020, attracting 81 per cent of voters to cast a ballot – the highest ever average turnout for local council elections. The elections were a ‘win for democracy’ with a low level of informal votes from the 4.29 million voters – the highest number enrolled for an electoral event. October 2020 also saw the largest number of candidates for an electoral event with 2,187 candidates nominating to stand for election at their council.1 However, the celebration of participation hid some concerning trends.

The Local Government Inspectorate, the lead integrity agency for Victorian local government, has observed trends in the sector for more than a decade. During the 2020 election, we spoke to councillors - some with up to 16 years’ experience in the role - who said the 2020 election was the most vindictive and vitriolic election they had participated in.

“I’ve never seen such toxic behaviour in any other election”

– Former councillor who did not stand for re-election

Once councillors are elected, they receive the Schedule to the Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020 which tells them how they are expected to behave. However, candidates, during the election period, often consider any type of behaviour is acceptable as long as it is legal.

In 2020, we saw a 107 per cent rise in the number of complaints compared to 2016. In the first few weeks of the election period, we had low numbers of complaints. However, about 10 days before the ballots closed, there was a significant increase in the volume of complaints and our team worked effectively and efficiently to analyse complaints and assign them to investigators if required.

The 2020 elections took place during an unprecedented worldwide pandemic and Melbourne enduring lockdowns that limited election candidates to mainly online and limited campaigning in public.

“A state of disaster has been declared, we are juggling working from home, home schooling, help[ing] our families cope with their mental health, helping friends, extended families [and] people in the community. Add on the extra task of organising your campaign for the elections and you are lucky to have your head intact at the end of the day.”

– Submission by an election candidate to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Impact of social media on elections and electoral administration

“It was a COVID election. Candidates were not able to get out and meet the public.

“One councillor was elected but the public didn’t actually get to see or hear them. They were elected on written material which was written by the ratepayers association. There have been a lot of questions about how this councillor got elected to represent the community.

“It is hard to get good candidates to run. I know there were a couple of really good candidates but they didn’t run. It was too hard because of COVID.”

– Councillor re-elected in 2020

With in-person campaigning mostly impossible, the majority of candidates had an active social media presence. Social media is a low-cost way to reach a lot of people and this trend was exacerbated by the COVID-19 restrictions and the closure of many local newspapers. We saw a 241 per cent increase in social media complaints in the 2020 election period in contrast to the 2016 elections.

In 2020, there was also a rise in the number of candidates lodging complaints against each other, with the most disturbing of these being the ‘weaponising’ of our complaints process. This often involved a candidate submitting a complaint and then attempting to publicise their actions through traditional or social media, to cast aspersions on a rival candidate.

“A large number of my posts of Facebook were targeted by a councillor who was running for re-election in a different ward. This councillor would say that I was wrong, they would accuse me on lying and they would threaten to report me to the Local Government Inspectorate.”

– Councillor elected for the first time in 2020

Many of those ‘weaponised’ complaints related to incorrect or missing authorisations of electoral material, particularly on candidate’s social media pages or accounts. Later in this report, we recommend amending section 287 of the Local Government Act 2020 to clarify the definition of electoral material to in relation to online material, and clarify the areas where electoral authorisations are required for transparency.2 During the 2020 election period, considerable time was spent in intervening in disagreements between candidates and advising complainants who did not understand the laws that govern the election period, despite the guidelines and training material provided by the VEC.

We also continue to see a misunderstanding of the scope and application of section 288 in relation to misleading and deceptive conduct.3

We also noted an increase in activity from community and ratepayer groups. We received complaints about the actions of ratepayer groups and received complaints from ratepayer groups. Community and ratepayer groups had significant input into the election, and they must understand that they are governed by the same legislation as candidates.

“I am a long-time councillor and this year is the first time I have ever thought about quitting. My family has been attacked by other candidates. It happened during the election period and has continued.”

– Councillor re-elected in 2020

Meanwhile, transparency and integrity on matters, such as electoral donations, was in the spotlight in 2020 because IBAC held public hearings relating to allegations of serious corrupt conduct in planning and property development decisions at the City of Casey.

Current legislation requires all council election candidates to submit a campaign donation return, which is a record of gifts or in-kind support, received by candidates for use in their campaigns. In 2020, the number of candidates who had failed to comply with this law halved, dropping from 13 per cent in 2016 to six per cent last year. There were four candidates who failed to submit a campaign donation return in both 2016 and 2020.

More information about penalties for electoral breaches is included in Appendix 1.

1 Victorian Electoral Commission, 2020, A win for democracy in a challenging year, Victorian Electoral Commission, viewed 3 May 2021

2 Section 287 is listed in full in Appendix 2.

3 Section 288 is listed in full in Appendix 2.