Farewell Administrators, Hello Council

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There’s a different feeling when you walk around the centre of Geelong at the moment and it’s got something to do with a sense of progress. Have you been for a wonder around town lately?

It’s noisy and dusty; there is the thumping and beeping of machinery, and safety barriers to keep pedestrians out of the way. But behind those barriers, behind the noise and dust and thumps and beeps, is the pent up momentum of years of conversation, argument, plan and counter plan, vision and counter vision; of, ‘we need to do something’.

It has been seventeen months since the news broke that the Geelong Council was on the state government chopping block. This week the City of Greater Geelong administrators met for the final time and I couldn’t help wondering what the legacy of Dr Kathy Alexander, Peter Dorling – who will, we know, we be staying on as a municipal monitor - and Laurinda Gardner would be.

I hope it will be that the local community was asked about what mattered to them and was listened to, and that transformational plans underway will meet those expectations. For me, I’m just glad to see things finally happening in my home town. If it took getting rid of a dysfunctional council and putting administrators in place to do that, then it’s been a job well done.

If an early return to community-elected councillors sees that sense of stability and positive progress continue then it will have been an even better job and the Liberal opposition and the Greens who argued for a shortened administrator period will have been fully justified and will deserve our praise. If instead we see a return to factionalism and dysfunction, it will be the same Liberal opposition and the Greens who will face the fallout.

Let’s hope for the former. 

Sacking Councils Is Nothing New

It was national news last year when Local Government Minister, Natalie Hutchins, called time on the Geelong council. It was a bold move, but hardly an isolated one in the realms of local government.

The Central Goldfields Shire council was sacked just a few weeks ago after a report revealed executive misconduct and ‘disturbing mismanagement’ by council.

Brimbank Council was famously sacked in 2009 by the Brumby Labor government, with factional infighting having rendered the council dysfunctional. In 2012, the Liberal Baillieu government successfully pushed to keep the Brimbank Council administrators in place until 2015. At the time, the Minister for Local Government, Jeanette Powell, said independent reports had recommending extending the administration period, and was quoted as saying, “the premature return of an elected council carries a real risk of a return to the past practices which was found in the ombudsman’s report.”

The Labor State opposition, unsuccessfully, argued for the return of a community-elected council.

In 2016, those same arguments ran in the case of the Geelong Council administration period, only this time it was a Labor government pushing for a more time for the administrators to do their work and a Liberal opposition, joined by the state Greens, arguing for a quick return to an elected council. As we know, this time the argument for the speedy return of councillors won the day.

Wangaratta Council was sacked in 2013, Glen Eira Council in 2004-05, Melbourne City Council in 2000, and Nillumbik in 1998.

These are just the recent examples in Victoria, and I’m not counting the time Jeff Kennett sacked all 210 of the state’s local councils.

There’s nothing new about dysfunction in local government. For those of us in Geelong, we had an extraordinary era of evidence-based long-term planning under the Geelong Regional Commission, and in the early years of the newly formed City of Greater Geelong when Jeff Kennett appointed himself Minister for Geelong. Then it all came to frustrating and damaging halt.

Plenty has been written and said about the appointment of two highly paid council-sitters for the next Geelong council. But even that is not new, and given the recent history of our local government, it’s easy to see the justification.

Let’s not forget that the City employed Alister Paterson as (*cough) Chief of Staff to the newly-elected Mayor Darryn Lyons because Mr Lyons lacked experience in local government. I can’t say that I have a problem with providing two experienced local government operators to monitor the early days of the next council.

New councillors can bring great energy, enthusiasm and vision. They will have to work together to make complex decisions on projects that will stay with us for decades, and they need to make those decisions in a complex environment of local government processes and law – and there is still work to do within City of Greater Geelong operations to address the Halliday report – and then there is the additional complexity of competing state and federal governments. There’s too much at stake to just cross our fingers and hope the next lot get it right.

Peter Dorling has intimate experience with decision-making at the City over the past year and a half. In business we talk about succession planning and understand the value of a period of handing over management. Why should it be different at an organisation that literally runs our city and plans for our future, and is our fourth largest employer?

Jude Munro oversaw a transformational 10-year period as CEO of the Brisbane City Council – including a remarkably stable four-year period from 2004 and 2008 despite political division threatening to engulf council as Liberal lord mayor, Campbell Newman, vocally and publicly clashed with his Labor-dominated council. The chamber may have been divided, but the City, with its 9000 staff, got on with the job. This is the kind of experience I want for our city.

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