Local government tends to get a rough ride in the media. Radio shock jocks, Nine’s A Current Affair and the Murdoch tabloids are always keen to take a swing, which tends to discourage councils from opening up their operations to maximum public scrutiny.

This is understandable. If someone is going to turn every molehill into a mountain, why would you voluntarily serve up more material that could be used malevolently to create public ridicule?

Over the last few days, Victorian councils have been subjected to a Herald Sun attack over an amalgam of tiny spending and policy proposals across different councils, which led to this editorial headlined “Plot lost at clown hall” last Thursday.

Then we had this spray in yesterday’s the Sunday Herald Sun, which was encouraged by Labor’s newly installed Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins, who clearly thinks there is political capital in feeding anti-council sentiment and campaigning against above-CPI rate rises.

Instead, the Andrews government is proposing a system of NSW-style rate-capping. Labor’s rate-capping regime will effectively force the Australian Services Union to accept much more modest enterprise agreements in Victoria, where almost two-thirds of all council spending goes on staff costs.

If Premier Daniel Andrews and Hutchins are serious about council efficiency and value for ratepayer dollar, they would be criticising nine-day fortnights, excessive salaries, inflexible work practices, above-inflation wage increases and EBAs that prevent councils from using volunteers to deliver certain services.

Rate-capping will bring all of these into focus and will also place the Andrews government under pressure to take back school-crossing services from councils, and contribute more than a miserable 20% of the funding for public libraries across Victoria.

However, the rate-capping argument — even when distorted into tabloid beat-ups — shouldn’t diminish the efforts of councils to remain Australia’s most open and transparent level of government, even if a pro-disclosure culture generates predictable negative headlines.

City of Melbourne will tomorrow vote on whether to submit this pro-disclosure motion at the big annual Australian Local Government Association conference in Canberra in June:

“That the National General Assembly endorse the following transparency and disclosure principles as measures to be considered by local government across Australia to demonstrate leadership in good governance and transparency.

  1. Public disclosure on council website of a full lease register detailing the terms of any arrangements with third parties who occupy council-owned land and buildings.
  2. Annual public disclosure on council website details of independent valuations of council-owned land and buildings above a threshold of $1 million.
  3. Disclosure in council annual reports the employment terms of their five most senior officers including name, position, remuneration and length of contract.
  4. Making an audio recording of council and committee meetings available alongside the formal minutes where practicable and affordable.
  5. Allocation of at least 15 minutes each month to unscripted oral public questions at a full council or committee meeting.
  6. Periodic disclosure on council website of expense claims made by councillors.
  7. Pre-approval of interstate and international travel by councillors at an open council or committee meeting.”

Given the ongoing commercial pressure on quality journalism, one of the solutions is for greater institutional disclosure. Who needs teams of investigative journalists to unearth material if disclosure is compulsory in the first place?

That’s what happened with executive pay in Australia in the 1990s, and then with former treasurer Peter Costello’s non-binding vote on the remuneration report in 2004. There is now so much executive pay information in the public arena, the debate is more about analysing the data than revealing it.

Whilst the Herald Sun moans about how much council CEOs are paid, at least we know that the Murdoch family is helping themselves to about $1 million a week in salary from the two public companies they control.

A simple example of easy reform would be to extend ASX-style disclosure of executive pay to the public sector, which is still stuck using the old anonymous pay bands.

That would be something for Hutchins and the media to pursue, rather than beat-ups about councils potentially fining residents who leave their bins out on the street all week.

  • Stephen Mayne is chair of the Finance and Governance committee at City of Melbourne.