Is the State Government up to the challenge?
The Age Kenneth Davidson takes a look at the underlying problems and legacy of the Kennet Government's Local Government Reform and the urgent need for the State Government to take the necessary step of intitiating further reform and not just ride the wave.
Davidson take a inner look at the City of Melbourne but teh real soultion lies outside its current boundaries and the need to serious consider a Greater Melbourne in association with electoral reform that restors good governance, accountability and representation.
The sooner the State Government initiates a public review the sooner we can begin to address the issues that confront our city.
Council pathways need urgent repair
Kenneth Davidson The Age June 4, 2007
THE report by Ernst & Young on the operations of the Melbourne City Council is a blistering attack on the administration of the MCC under Lord Mayor John So.
Finances are out of control. According to the report, the council has had negative cash flow of $67 million in the past two years and the cumulative draw on capital over the next 10 years is estimated at $109 million.
The report states there are three key issues that contributed to the problems the council now faces: "Administration and council decision-making processes are often inconsistent, incomplete and based on poor data, the administration has an increasingly top heavy, disaggregated organisation structure, and management of staff performance is ineffective."
Incredibly, So is refusing to take responsibility even though he played an active part behind the scenes in most of these decisions. He claims wrongly the administration of the council is the responsibility of the chief executive, David Pitchford.
Even greater responsibility lies with the State Government, which inherited an electoral gerrymander created under the Kennett government that Premier Steve Bracks has refused to reform because it wants to have both control and distance when the council becomes the victim of its own in-built incompetence.
It is the same governance principle that applies to the franchise model governing urban public transport. The Government wants to earn the gratitude of the big end of town, which wants to make money from building toll roads financed by public-private partnerships. It wants the foreign multinationals that stand behind Connex and Yarra Trams to take the heat for running an inadequate public transport system. The franchisees run the system to maximise their profit from the subsidy, which is now about twice the subsidy that applied just before the MET was taken out of public control, without an improvement in service that could justify the extra cost to the taxpayer. The Government believes it is a price worth paying in order to confuse the issue of who is responsible for the system.
As Transport Minister Lynne Kosky said recently in response to the question, why shouldn't the Government exercise its right to rescind the franchise without penalty in November, the Government didn't want to be responsible for running a transport system. Like So at the local government level, Kosky at the state level uses the same excuse of managerial issues outside her control to duck ministerial responsibility.
The Kennett legacy is still with us. The politicians run a double act. They are dictatorial when it suits them to be seen as decisive, and have the ability to deny accountability when it suits them to put distance between themselves and unpopular decisions.
As the Ernst & Young report points out, the wasteful expenditure, very often with no higher purpose than to increase the standing of So, has occurred because So's control of council numbers means that projects involving additional spending outside the budget global limits, which should be referred to full council, are stitched up by council committees.
"Decisions are routinely made by council committees on recommendations that require new funding," the report said. "This is exacerbated by the practice of not providing full costing details … (this) sets up conflict in the budgeting process as the total cost of approved initiatives exceeds the council approved budget."
The most egregious example of the impact of this approach was So decision to provide $47.5 million to the development of the Convention Centre on South bank on the suggestion of the Treasurer, John Brumby, without referring the proposal to full council until he had stitched up the numbers outside the committee and council process.
So was told by Brumby the project would not go ahead unless the council made the $47.5 million contribution, even before concept plans were drawn up and tenders called for the development, according to Kevin Chamberlin, who was chairman of the finance committee at the time and not a supporter of the proposal.
The Bracks Government may be characterised as Kennett Lite. It's public face is warm, friendly and caring but it is largely responsible to the same interests that stood more openly behind the Kennett government. Like the Kennett government, the Bracks Government hides behind a managerialism that tries to put as much distance between the Government and ordinary voters as possible.
The Bracks Government inherited gerrymandered boundaries and an undemocratic "deeming" provision for voting in MCC elections. The only reforms the Bracks Government introduced were to abolish the ward system and the introduction of direct voting for mayor separate from the election of councillors.
The Government left in place the gerrymandered boundaries introduced by Kennett, which split off parts of North Melbourne, half of Kensington and all of North Carlton.
The deeming provisions means that council officers are legally required to look up directors and owners of commercial property only, and where they are not already on the electoral roll they can be "deemed" to be on the role. Electoral material and ballots will be sent to them and they are entitled to vote, even if they live in China or Hong Kong or elsewhere and have never visited Melbourne or known anything about the candidates standing. The system is wide open to rorting. And yet it hasn't been referred to the Victorian Electoral Commission, which is undertaking a review of local government structures and voting. Why?
Melbourne could get a better set of representatives if the pre-Kennett boundaries were restored and direct mayoral election was abolished, according to Green councillor Fraser Brindley. The present system, which gives more votes to commercial property owners than residents, suits the Government because it favours tame-cat business representatives who share the Government's "development" objectives such as channel deepening, the East-West tunnel linking Hoddle Street and the Tullamarine Freeway, the Convention Centre and special events such as the Grand Prix and the Commonwealth Games.
Population is coming back to inner Melbourne. The gerrymander should be reversed so that the council is elected by a majority of residents rather than absentee property owners. MCC electoral reform and public ownership of the urban transport system are the necessary preconditions to seriously tackling Melbourne's livability issues.