The Local Government Inspectorate is the leading integrity agency for Victorian councils.
We work with other government agencies help ensure a fair and democratic election process. Our responsibilities include:
- candidate eligibility
- advice to and monitoring the conduct of councils and candidates
- and assessing allegations
- investigations into potential offences under the Local Government Act (1989 and 2020 Acts).
The council election period starts on the last day nominations are accepted by the VEC and ends at 6pm on election day. The 2020 election period started on 22 September and ended at 6pm on Saturday 24 October.
However, our role in council elections started more than a year before election day and continued long after the closure of the official election period.
Electoral provisions are set out under Part 8 of the Local Government Act, which commenced on 6 April 2020, but some relevant provisions commenced on election day, 24 October 2020.
The complaints process
Elections in Australia allow for robust political debate and the expression of opinion. It is vital that complaints are received, assessed and dealt with swiftly to ensure fair and transparent elections. A swift process also reduces the opportunity for the complaints process to be manipulated and used as a campaign tool.
It is critical that substantive matters, that carry a risk to the system, are identified and appropriately investigated to determine the best outcome in consideration of the public interest. However, it is also important to quickly deal with complaints that are without basis, not in good faith and are low-risk offences caused by a lack of understanding, or a genuine mistake.
When we first receive a complaint, we conduct a preliminary assessment to determine if and how we can deal with it under Division 4 of Part 7 of the Local Government Act 2020.
We receive complaints through an online form on our website, via email, post and telephone. We can also be referred complaints from another government body or agency or any of our staff can receive a complaint as part of their work. Sometimes, we start an ‘own motion’ investigation when we hear about a potential breach of the Act and investigate without a formal complaint into the specific allegation. Complaints that we accept are then assessed to determine the appropriate course of action. The complaint can be investigated, closed or reviewed to see if more work is needed to properly assess it. Most complaints list multiple allegations and we assess each one individually. We look for specific information: dates, times, names of people and evidence to corroborate allegations – all this helps us determine what do with a complaint. Where possible, we contact the person providing the information for further detail.
We work with other integrity agencies to monitor local government elections and are able to receive or refer complaints to other agencies, including the VEC, the Victorian Ombudsman and IBAC.
If we refer a matter, this is because it falls within the remit of another agency and is more appropriately handled by that body.
Complaints about the way an election is delivered, including ballot papers, vote counts or the actions of elections officials are referred to the VEC.
Complaints about serious or systemic corruption are referred to IBAC and complaints about an administrative action or decision of council are referred to the Victorian Ombudsman.
Where appropriate, we also refer complaints to Victoria Police or the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.
In 2020, we received 218 complaint referrals from the VEC.
People may report improper conduct by councillors or council staff under the Public Interest Disclosures Act 2012 (PID Act). We are permitted to investigate public interest disclosures referred to us by IBAC.
The PID Act encourages people to report improper conduct and detrimental action by protecting people who make disclosures and those who cooperate with investigations.
Employed by public sector agencies, PID Coordinators are nominated to receive and notify IBAC of potential public interest disclosures.
Changes to the PID Act which commenced on 1 January 2020 mean the Inspectorate must notify IBAC of a complaint. After IBAC assess that matter, it can be referred to us for investigation.
We worked closely with IBAC prior to the election period to develop a procedure to assess PIDs and ensure that delays in investigating complaints were minimised. As the process could sometimes be delayed due to current legislation requiring both IBAC and our agency to assess the matter separately, we will work to streamline the process with IBAC and advocate for legislative changes to reduce multiple-agency handling of complaints.
Sometimes we help resolve complaints informally because the election period is relatively short and our formal processes take time. If we act informally to help resolve a complaint, we can sometimes get a quick result which reduces the impact on the election campaign.
For example, we received a complaint about election material and contacted an election candidate to voluntarily withdraw the material. Sometimes this approach is more effective as it avoids formal and bureaucratic processes.
Many complaints we receive relate to allegations of councillor or candidate impropriety that occurred well before the election. This could happen for a variety of reasons, ranging from honest oversight to blatant electioneering tactics designed to discredit a current candidate.
The 2020 local government election period took place in an unusual time where COVID-19 restrictions were in force across. As a result, a consistent theme to the non-election complaints we received related to complaints alleging that candidate were campaigning in contravention to the COVID-19 restrictions.
These matters were referred back to the complainant where possible and they were advised to take the complaint to Victoria Police as the responsible authority handling COVID-19 restriction breaches. We received 43 complaints alleging a candidate breached COVID-19 restrictions.
In the weeks leading up to the close of voting, we received about 25 media enquiries related to an allegation that a Bass Coast councillor had offered his fellow councillors $5 million per ward in exchange for the vote as mayor. The offer was alleged to have been made at a councillor only meeting held on 31 October 2018 — nearly two years before the 2020 elections.
The complaint alleged that the councillor offered the money in breach of section 76D of the Local Government Act 1989. However, we investigated and did not find evidence that the councillor had misused his position in breach of the Act.
Each time we were contacted, we made clear statements to the media on the findings from the investigation, However, as commonly seen in political reporting at all levels, untested and unproven allegations were aired publicly before an election.
Impact of the new Local Government Act
The Local Government Act 2020 (2020 Act) delivered a range of changes to improve the transparency and accountability of local government, including electoral reforms.
Part 8 of the 2020 Act deals with local government elections and draws on reform proposals aimed at improving the democratic legitimacy of councils by:
- creating simpler and more consistent electoral structures
- modernising the council franchise and councillor qualifications.
Part 8 is the largest Part of the 2020 Act consisting of 11 divisions (including electoral offences) and 87 sections. It substantially reformed the local government election system contained in Part 3 of the Local Government Act 1989 (1989 Act).
While the 2020 Act aims to improve the local government election process, we want to see a number of amendments to further improve transparency and strengthen the role of the CMI to regulate the sector during the election period.
Reviewed 23 June 2021