Nominations for candidates in Victoria’s council elections opened this week, as candidates and voters alike face the 24 October elections in unprecedented circumstances.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic began to disrupt Australian communities and decision-making, the 2020 Victorian local government elections were set to break new ground.
With the Local Government Act 2020 (‘the Act’) passing into law, significant reforms to the local government sector will coincide with the election of over 600 local government councillors across 76 (out of 79) Victorian local government areas.
The added complication of coronavirus has highlighted the challenges for councils in implementing ambitious State Government reforms.
It has also highlighted the democratic complexities of holding free and fair elections in an environment where the campaign activities of most candidates are limited.
The onset of the pandemic has also again demonstrated the resilience and adaptability of local government – not least its capability to deliver routine and emergency services to communities at this time of need.
It seems, however, that Covid-19 will likely force important measures intended to boost the diversity of local government sector onto the backburner.
Changes to local government
The Local Government Actreceived Royal Assent on 24 March 2020, bringing a host of new requirements and responsibilities for the local government sector.
A significant reform contained in the Act is the requirement that all candidates completea mandatory candidate training component prior to nominating for election.
While there is a dearth of evidence regarding the practice, pre-nomination training is a worthy idea, particularly at a time when trust in public officials is low.
Mandatory candidate training is also intended to reduce the number of ‘dummy’ or illegitimate candidates.
It was hoped that the reforms would avoid the scenario seen in 2016 at Wyndham City Council, with 95 candidates running for 11 council positions.
It was intended that this training be taken face-to-face. However, this proved impossible as COVID-19 restrictions were enforced and progressively tightened across Victorian municipalities.
Instead, the mandatory training was adapted into an online module, and released two weeks after its announced release date.
Boosting gender equality
The Gender Equality Act 2020, enacted on 25 February 2020, also has significant implications for Victoria’s 79 local government areas.
It requires Victorian public sector agencies including universities and councils to measure, report on, plan for and progress gender equality in their organisations.
Importantly, the Gender Equality Act requires councils to consider gender equality not only in their workforce and at an executive level (in this case, elected representatives) but also in the policies, programs and services that they deliver.
Although the implementation of the Gender Equality Act does not begin until March 2021, many councils do not currently have gender equality and inclusion strategies, and potentially have not yet planned to accommodate requirements of the Act.
In some cases, pandemic recovery and election preparation have, quite reasonably, taken precedence over the important aims and actions of the Gender Equality Act.
Councils operate with limited budgets in a rate-capped environment while attempting to provide relief and recovery efforts for ratepayers and residents.
It is understandable (although unfortunate) that some have had to make the difficult decision to prioritise immediate economic recovery over the longer-term public health and civic ramifications of the successful implementation of the Gender Equality Act.
To defer or not to defer
The Victorian Government has confirmed that local government elections will go ahead as planned on 24 October, with all elections held by postal vote.
Although the official ‘campaign period’ only began on September 17, for many candidates, the campaign has been underway for several months. Due to stage 4 restrictions, campaigning has effectively been limited to what can be done from the confines of people’s own homes.
From 14 September, candidates in the Greater Metropolitan area will also be able to distribute flyers and posters during their 2 hours of allotted exercise time.
Arguments over whether Victoria should further defer the elections seem to pose a ‘catch-22’.
For the elections to go ahead during a pandemic and limited campaigning capacity might favour incumbent councillors.
Equally, a deferral of up to 12 months would extend the term of incumbent councillors, giving them continued profile and decision-making power and taking away the community’s opportunity to have their say on their elected representatives in that time.
The Act makes no reference to an election being ‘free and fair’.
What it does say is that the Minister would need to be satisfied that the ‘event or circumstance could adversely affect the conduct of the general election’.
The local media landscape
The digitisation of the media landscape over recent years has come at a significant cost to local democracy.
Regional and local outlets have long relied on local government as a source of content. Indeed, the conflict-laden issues that inevitably attach to a local council are well-suited to the needs of local press.
In recent years staffing levels at local media outlets have been shrinking, which has had a consequence for the quality of news and the level of public scrutiny to which each council is subjected.
This has been dealt a crushing blow by the coronavirus as the loss of advertising revenue has seen many outlets move from print to digital format or cease publication altogether.
Over that time, long-term council personnel report that the extent of serious interrogation of council releases and publications has diminished.
Local media outlets are driven by a need for copy and often not resourced to undertake follow-up. As a consequence, it is more likely that that councils and councillors fly ‘under the radar’.
Despite the inconvenience of media attention, there is no doubt that local news outlets contribute to dialogue on local democracy and we are all the poorer for its absence.
Impact on first-time candidates
The pandemic has arrived at a time where a range of programs intended to raise awareness and support a diversity of candidates have been conducted by government and numerous community organisations, including the Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) over many years.
In that context the impacts of the pandemic may have quelled the civic aspirations of some, particularly those most impacted by the changed pandemic environment.
This is as the result of a range of factors including economic pressures, curtailed media reach, limited ability to letterbox and hand-out leaflets, and of course, interact directly with the community.
This has required less-well known candidates to act early, and to be particularly creative.
There has been an obvious emphasis on the potential reach of social media outlets at a time where more traditional media has not been available.
The conduct of local government elections is an administratively complex and resource-hungry undertaking.
Enacting several major legislative reforms shortly before elections are due to be held was a foreseeable complication – even without the added complexity of a pandemic.
The capacity of our communities to so engage in local democracy may be compromised in 2020. In the event that diversity is adversely impacted, that represents an opportunity lost.
But it is also perhaps an opportunity to re-consider the way in which citizens can engage in local democracy. That would be a good thing for all Victorians.
Banner image: A voter posts a postal ballot in an Australia Post box. Source: Wikimedia Commons