More democratic, less toxic promise

A MASSIVE overhaul for local government rules promises less toxicity, more consistency, and stronger democracy.

The state government’s proposed changes include preferential voting for councils, stricter financial management, and a “local government inspector” who can be sent in to patch problems before councils become so dysfunctional they need to be suspended for an inquiry. 

Local government minister and state Perth MP John Carey says the rules are designed with ratepayers at the forefront and will also benefit small businesses, community organisations, council staff and councillors. 

“This package is going to create really genuine reform across local governments and will have sweeping powers to prevent dysfunction,” Mr Carey said.

“The minister, at the moment, only has the powers of a standing inquiry to intervene.”

This proved a problem when Mr Carey’s predecessor David Templeman was unable to suspend just one elected member, and instead dysfunction at Perth council bubbled to a point that the whole council was suspended and a lengthy, expensive inquiry followed.

Mr Carey says under the new rules “if we start to see toxic fighting, an inspector can appoint a monitor to go in,” mediating and helping councillors resolve issues or make recommendations to a new and more powerful conduct panel.

Unlike the current local government standards panel, which can only order councillors to make apologies or undergo training, the new conduct panel can suspend or fine a councillor who’s breaching the act.

Inspector

When asked if more regimentation and a powerful new inspector might deter some people from running, Mr Carey told the Voice: “I think it’s the opposite. What turns people off now is they see a dysfunctional local government, they see toxic behaviour in local government, they see toxic behaviour by local residents, and they think ‘I don’t want to do this’.

“This is trying to build confidence in the system.”

Mr Carey was previously mayor of Vincent and said some of the reforms stem from his experience there, recalling the council needed significant overhaul to deal with opaque finances and hefty accounting errors. 

Other reforms will strengthen the rules around being eligible to run for council or vote, which have been an open joke for decades as councillors privately ribbed one another about renting out a broom closet to qualify to run for office. 

The rules are designed to crack down on “sham leases”, when someone takes out a lease without a genuine purpose just to run for council or vote. The inquiry into the City of Perth identified this was “common practice” and recommended several prosecutions.

Charges related to sham leases were laid against three people, and all three prosecutions failed. Proving a sham lease has proved a tricky hurdle in other jurisdictions.

The new rules will make it clearer by requiring a legitimate residency or business to be eligible, and the basis for a candidate being eligible must be publicly disclosed. 

The reforms are open to feedback until February 4. 

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