By William Summers
Gift registers are maintained by nearly all Victorian councils but are rarely seen by residents — at least until now.
Under little-known reforms introduced in the Local Government Act 2020, councils have been required from 1 September to make all documents publicly available unless they are either confidential by virtue of law or their release would be contrary to the public interest.
Councils are additionally required to publish a gift policy on their website from 24 October 2020 if they did not already do so.
DScribe has used the new rules to compile a list of 1,711 items offered to councillors across the state after requesting official gift registers from all 79 Victorian local councils.
The analysis reveals Victoria’s elected councillors have been handed more than $280,000-worth of gifts since the previous round of local elections in 2016, including hot air balloon rides, scratchie cards, toilet paper, a statue of Jesus and even a batch of live chickens.
Melbourne City Council accounted for around a quarter of the total gift value, with its nine councillors, mayor and deputy mayor pulling in just under $75,000 of free offers over the past four years.
Almost half of Melbourne City Council’s gifts were attributed to Lord Mayor Sally Capp, who declared nearly $36,000 of gifts including a $4,900 trip grand prix hospitality package, provided by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, and a $1,400 double-pass to the 2019 Australian Open tennis from Tennis Australia.
The single most valuable gift declared by any councillor was $46,200 of free legal advice provided to former South Gippsland mayor Don Hill, who enlisted the pro bono services of Melbourne silk Vincent Morfuni QC to successfully fight misconduct allegations levelled against Mr Hill by fellow councillors.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) exonerated Mr Hill in 2017 but the Victorian Government later sacked South Gippsland Shire Council and put it under the control of state administrators because of ongoing conflict among councillors.
But despite the new council transparency rules, not all councils are keen for residents to know what gifts their councillors have been offered.
Seven councils refused to provide a copy of their gift register or said it could only be viewed by appointment at council offices, while 12 councils did not respond to multiple requests for a copy of their gift register.
Nine further councils would only supply a copy of their gift register after redacting the names of the councillors in receipt of the gifts, meaning there is no way of knowing who was given what.
Fifty-two councils supplied a copy of their councillor gift register, with seven others saying they do not keep a gift register or no gifts have been declared. Some of the gifts declared by councillors were declined, passed into council ownership or donated to good causes.
The investigation reveals that while regional councillors were offered fewer gifts than their city counterparts, those with well-known festivals and events in their neighbourhoods were often fortunate enough to score free tickets from organisers.
Councillors in Moyne Shire, a rural authority stretching along 100km of the Great Ocean Road, collectively accepted 141 tickets to local events including the Port Fairy Folk Festival, the Port Fairy Jazz Festival, the Koroit Irish Festival, Warrnambool races and the Music in the Vines winery festival.
Meanwhile, an unnamed councillor in Golden Plains Shire partied at the trendy Meredith Music Festival, courtesy of two tickets from festival organisers valued at $812.
Councillors in both Strathbogie Shire and Indigo Shire were given tickets to rodeo events being held in their respective areas, while Yarra Ranges councillors were invited to the KaBloom Festival of Flowers and offered free rides on the famous Puffing Billy steam railway.
Surf Coast councillors enjoyed VIP tickets to cyclist Cadel Evans’ Great Ocean Road Race from Visit Victoria and free baseball caps supplied by Torquay-based surf brand Quiksilver.
Among the stranger gifts declared by councillors was a pair of Ugg slippers given to Melton City councillor Bob Turner (which Cr Turner subsequently donated to the council’s Family Services division), a door prize consisting of a ‘dried pork snack’ and $2 mobile phone SIM won by Manningham councillor Anna Chen and an ‘imitation Prada wallet from China’ declared by Greater Bendigo councillor Margaret O’Rourke.
Charlotte Bisset, who represents the Koriella ward of Murrindindi Shire Council, listed seven live chickens on the council gift register in February 2017, while an unnamed councillor in Wyndham was given a single roll of toilet paper in March this year — a valuable gift in the midst of Victoria’s coronavirus-inspired toilet paper shortages.
By law, councillors are only required to declare gifts over $500, though most councils set themselves a lower declaration limit. Some councillors play it safe by listing even the most trivial items on their council gift register.
Among the small-value items declared by councillors since 2016 are a Connoisseur ice cream ($3.50), a shopping bag ($3), a ream of A4 paper ($10), a cappuccino ($4.30), a single stubby of beer ($5) and a ‘letter of thanks and appreciation’ given to Greater Shepparton mayor Kim O’Keeffe by the mayor of Toyoake in Japan ($0).
Former Darebin mayor Kim Le Cerf, who did not nominate for re-election to the council in 2020, said in her experience most gifts are provided as part of a councillor’s day-to-day interactions with the community or from international delegations.
“Mayors and councillors receive all types of gifts from community groups and organisations we work closely with to show their appreciation of the work we do together. A lot of these gifts are either donated or passed on to the council. Some of them are quite special and have cultural meaning and take a permanent place in council buildings.”
Ms Le Cerf — who declared Chinese folk art and an Indigenous painted platter among her gifts — added that rejecting gifts can sometimes risk offending the donor, particularly if the items are of personal, artistic or cultural significance.
The new council transparency laws were introduced on the back of a damning 2016 Victorian Ombudsman report that warned council transparency had become a “postcode lottery” for residents.
Ombudsman Deborah Glass used the report to call on councils to stop “box ticking” minimum transparency requirements and instead to make transparency a “cornerstone of local government practice”.
“Decisions made behind closed doors, not published on council websites or otherwise exposed to the public gaze, make people suspicious about whether the decision was fair or, where money is involved, whether it is a good use of public funds,” Ms Glass wrote in the report.
The local government minister at the time was former Victorian Labor powerbroker Adem Somyurek, who was dumped from the role in June after revelations he was marshalling an industrial-scale branch-stacking operation within the state Labor party and directing taxpayer-funded parliamentary staff to conduct party political operations.
Somyurek was subsequently sacked by Premier Daniel Andrews and now sits as an independent member of Victoria’s upper house.
Before being stripped of his ministerial role, Somyurek had made it clear to councils that gift registers should not be locked away from public scrutiny.
“I would expect [council gift registers] to be made publicly available if they are receiving gifts. Let me just leave it at that,” Somyurek said in March during a parliamentary discussion about the public transparency reforms.
However, the term ‘publicly available’ is not defined in the Act, meaning some councils may continue to insist residents visit council offices if they want to see a list of gifts provided to local councillors.
Only 12 of Victoria’s 79 councils currently publish their gift register online, though several others have told this publication they plan to start making it available on their website in late 2020 or early 2021.
Open government campaigner Peter Timmins, who is the Interim Convener of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network, said public transparency should apply at all levels of government.
“Councillors and council staff underpin democracy at the local level. They have no leave pass from expected high standards of transparency, accountability, ethical behaviour and conduct,” Mr Timmins said.
“Those who ignore the need to be transparent regarding gifts and benefits received in the course of carrying out their public duties, or offer lame excuses why information like this isn’t released, should look voters clearly in the eye and explain their quaint view that this important principle doesn’t apply to them.”
A spokesperson for local government minister Shaun Leane MLC said all councils were expected to get on-board with the transparency changes as soon as they can.
“We have changed the law to require all councils to have a publicly-available gifts policy and gifts register,” the spokesperson said.
“This comes into effect on 24 October 2020 and must be adopted by councils within six months. We encourage all councils to comply as soon as possible in the interests of transparency and open government.”
Victorian residents who wish to see council gift registers should check the website of the relevant council or request a copy from the council’s governance team.