CFP Business Specialist | Local Government Expert | Political Adviser
On 16 April 2020, Parliament approved the progress of the Local Government Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020. The Bill gives local governments near unlimited powers to suspend local laws, spend ratepayer reserves, hold meetings in secret and avoid public scrutiny of decisions. The Bill gives no parliamentary oversight of local government decisions during COVID-19.
Whilst the government is to be applauded for its actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in WA, it underestimates the powers of the CEO and vulnerable councillors ill-equipped to make decisions in the best interests of the community when the community is kept in social isolation and banned from public meetings.
There are some in local government (including WALGA) and the state government who are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a means to conduct a “power grab” of democracy away from council elected members and the community as a whole.
Proposed section 10.3(1) empowers the Local Government Minister with discretion to issue an order to modify or suspend the operation of specified provisions of the Act or regulations made under the Act. Ministerial discretion is very dangerous and can easily be misused, as we have seen with the Planning Minister’s recent actions approving over height developments and ramming through Local Planning Schemes.
Proposed section 10.4 (Suspension of local law) is unnecessary and uncalled for. Local governments already have discretionary powers, that are exercisable with a resolution of council, to suspend the operation of a local law or part of local law, to reduce red-tape and to quickly respond to local consequences in their district of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no reason why democracy in local government should be a victim of COVID-19.
Councils are already meeting online and can continue to meet this way, as needed, until the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Councillors, who represent the community, can respond quickly to any urgent matter, online.
CEOs already have powers under Delegated Authority to respond quickly to emerging needs of the community. Parliament does not have to provide them with any more powers through coercion from this Bill.
Before the Bill was approved, councils were taking steps using Delegation of powers to the CEO, approving expenditure from reserves and taking steps not to increase rates in 2020/21. Click these links for more detail:
Residents and ratepayers will need to be extra vigilant to check these new powers meet community standards and expectations. Minutes of council meetings should be downloaded and saved for future reference.
Post Newspapers, 18 April 2020