There is much speculation that the Victorian Government will move to sack the Darebin City Council early in the New Year, following the release of the Ombudsman’s much anticipated report into the council’s affairs. On the face of it, the State Government will be acting to protect local residents by cleaning up yet another dodgy council.
There has long been a strong sense that the Ombudsman’s inquiry was necessary. Most Darebin residents are aware that there have been at least a couple of highly questionable council planning decisions, and it is common knowledge that political control of the council was held by a particular political network.
However, there is a yawning gap between addressing the problems of Darebin’s previous council and the Baillieu government’s likely solution. For a number of reasons, sacking the council is the wrong answer.
Since the Ombudman’s inquiry was initiated, like other councils, Darebin has had local elections. Four of the previous nine sitting councillors did not contest the elections, meaning almost half of the council has already been replaced. Darebin’s four new councillors are all ‘cleanskins’, including a Liberal, with no previous council affiliation. It may be that, by choosing not to run again for election, some councillors have chosen to fall on their political swords. Former mayor, Diana Asmar, resigned from council prior to the elections to run for the position of secretary in the scandal-ridden Health Services Union No 1 branch.
Ms Asmar has been supported in her HSU bid by the Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy. Ms Asmar’s husband, David Asmar, recently resigned after 10 years as an electoral officer for Senator Conroy. Mr Asmar has been identified as a ‘person of interest’ in the Ombudsman’s inquiry.
It is expected that the Ombudsman’s report will identify serious problems with the previous council. But sacking four councillors, who had no relationship to the previous council, amounts to punishing the innocent for the acts of others. This contravention of natural justice would not be tolerated in the courts. It should not be tolerated in political life.
If the Ombudsman’s report identifies continuing councillors as having committed offences, they should be formally investigated and charged. These charges will apply to individuals, not the collective.
It would also be wrong for the federal government to sack the entire state government as a result of the Ombudsman’s recent report into the affairs of an individual state government member. Yet the principle is the same.
Indeed, for the state government to sack the Darebin council for offences identified by the Ombudsman’s report, yet not only allow itself to stay in office but further allow one of its own members to continue without punishment following a critical Ombudsman’s report, would be an act of gross hypocrisy.
More importantly, the state government moving to sack the council will assault the democratic process for the failings of individuals. If this principle was to apply more broadly, Australia would have lost its democracy long ago, as the various failings of some of its elected representatives were brought to light.
Australians citizens may be appalled, from time to time, by the actions of individual politicians. But they would not tolerate the sacking of the entire parliament and placing decision making in the hands on an unelected ‘administrator’.
Rather, it remains an ingrained principle of Australia’s democratic system that if the voters disapprove of the elected, they can choose to remove them, or not, in regularly scheduled elections. That five of Darebin council’s councillors were returned shows that, whatever may come of the Ombudsman’s report, a majority of local voters have been largely happy with the performance of the returned councillors.
The Baillieu government wants to sack Darebin council not because of the wrong-doing of individuals, but because it is not travelling well in the polls. The state government holds the slimmest of parliamentary margins and with an election next year, it wants to paint Labor in as negative a light as possible.
Sacking a ‘corrupt Labor council’ could damage the Victorian ALP by association. That the Liberal state government will also be sacking Darebin’s first ever Liberal councillor would be written off as ‘collateral damage’, especially given that the Liberal councillor was only elected on the back of Greens preferences.
But sacking a council, moreover a newly elected council, sends a message to local voters about its disregard for the democratic process. The state government will no doubt be assuming that, as Labor heartland, the local voter cost will be outweighed by a wider political benefit.
But, in doing so, the Baillieu government will have shown its contempt for electoral politics and for natural justice. It will have also shown Victoria’s voters that, on this issue at least, hypocrisy is the price it is prepared to pay for political expediency.