By Julian Bajkowski
Convenors of a post mortem into Victoria’s fractious local government elections of 2012 have issued a challenge to the state’s councillors and candidates to frankly vent their views on what has to change to avoid a repeat of poor voter turnout and bad behaviour on the hustings.
The Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) on Monday released an issues paper for stage two of its “Strengthening democracy: Improving local government elections” project that is trying to make council elections more democratically inclusive and transparent, including tackling the thorny issue of donations and their influence.
“A year on from the 2012 elections, where one in four voters failed to participate, we need to ask some key questions about how our local democracies are functioning,” said VLGA President, Samantha Dunn.
“Are donations a key factor in determining who is elected in local government? Can more be done to ensure voters are aware of who they are electing to the council chamber? The VLGA believes it is important for local government to be accountable for our own electoral system, to take responsibility for identifying community concerns and to drive further improvements.”
Assuming there is genuine and forthright response from councillors and candidates, VLGA clearly has its work cut out judging by the contents of the issues paper.
The VLGA paper cites the Victorian Electoral Commission’s (VEC) recent summary of the 2012 elections and the jump in complaints that said:
“…a large number related to allegations about candidate conduct (70) whether in breach of the LG Act and/or of a criminal or civil nature. This is a significant increase on the 12 complaints received about candidate conduct at the previous local government elections in 2008.”
The VLGA paper also cites previous concerns that were “raised about whether the VEC discouraged formal registration of complaints and whether investigations occur so long after the fact that the effect of any penalties or actions on the overall conduct and perception of the elections is negligible.”
“There was a view that the provisions of the Local Government Act 1989 relating to misconduct need to be strengthened.”
Now VLGA is officially asking candidates and councillors for their views on whether “poor candidate conduct was a significant issue in the 2012 local government elections” in their respective municipalities.
The body also wants to know if “investigative processes regarding poor candidate conduct and misleading or deceptive information” are “inadequate for ensuring improved standards at future elections?”
One option being canvassed is whether there is a need for the “strengthening of the Local Government Act with regard to sanctions for candidate misconduct” and whether or not such a move would deter bad behaviour.
The issue of so-called ‘dummy candidates’ – essentially people who stand for election with the ultimate purpose of steering preferences by confusing voters – is also firmly on the table.
The VLGA wants to know whether the $250 candidate fee which it says is “the only financial barrier to participation” should stand or needs to be lifted to deter “trivial or malicious participation.”
“Since the 2012 elections, concerns about potential distortions or instances of corruption have been expressed in the media, particularly regarding the influence of property developers,” the VLGA paper says.
It offers that “possible solutions” to remedy “undue influence include measures such as the NSW response of banning donations from developers altogether and/or placing a cap on all donations.”
Another option raised in previous consultations includes capping campaign donations and declaring them prior to elections with such information being made available to voters.
The issues paper also takes a dig at the rapidly shrinking numbers of journalists now working on local and suburban papers that were once a staple source of information for voters in council elections.
“The exception to this was a narrow focus on Melbourne City Council elections,” the paper says.
“The VLGA believes it is important for local government to be accountable for our own electoral system, to take responsibility for identifying community concerns and to drive further improvements,” the group’s president, Ms Dunn, said.
“We invite responses from councillors, election candidates, local government professionals and community members,” she said, adding that the responses would flow into a further report and “support our work to promote increased participation, transparency and accountability in the local electoral process.” said Cr Dunn.
The issues paper and details on how to submit a response can be found at www.vlga.org.au
The closing date for submissions to be lodged is Friday 26 July 2013, 5pm.
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