The Victorian Greens, set to be big losers under Mr Somyurek’s new system, have gone further, saying he had “corrupted” local government in Victoria, just as he had “corrupted” Labor’s internal democracy.
Labor’s new Local Government Minister, Shaun Leane, defended the actions of his predecessor, saying Mr Somyurek followed proper processes when he made his controversial decisions.
But councils, their peak body and others in the sector say they will be pushing hard for a review of Mr Somyurek’s decisions while the Greens pursue answers through Parliament on whether the former minister improperly “meddled” with new local electoral boundaries.
Victoria’s local government sector was dumbfounded last year when Mr Somyurek unveiled his plan to move nearly all of the state’s 79 councils to a single-member ward system, against the advice of the Victorian Electoral Commission and in the face of evidence that multi-member wards worked best for ratepayers.
Single-member electorates have been found to hand a clear advantage to big parties like Labor and the Liberals while discouraging independents, women and minority candidates from running in fiercely fought, winner-takes-all contests.
The Municipal Association of Victoria, local government women’s advocates, rural and metropolitan councils and even members of the minister’s own mayoral advisory panel were against the enforced changes, arguing councils should be free to choose the system that worked best for their residents.
Labor pushed Mr Somyurek’s reforms through State Parliament this year with the support of the Liberal-National Coalition, despite the objections.
When the coronavirus crisis struck, many of the same voices then pleaded for the council elections to be postponed, warning the disruption of the pandemic would hinder candidates without access to big-party resources, but Mr Somyurek refused, announcing in May that voting would go ahead on October 24.
The former minister made his policy decisions as Victorian Labor worked behind the scenes on a statewide power play aimed at winning control of councils and re-establishing the party as a force at grassroots level.
But in the wake of Mr Somyurek’s dramatic downfall, many in the sector are pushing Mr Leane to review the decisions of the disgraced factional boss, who was sacked from the ministry and out of the Labor Party after explosive revelations of branch stacking.
The City of Darebin is one of eight local government areas which will elect new members in October under the single-member system enforced by Labor, with most of the rest of the state’s councils to follow in 2024.
Mayor Susan Rennie says her inner-north municipality is set to be carved up into single-member wards similar to the electoral lines in force in 2004 when every councillor was from the Labor Party.
Cr Rennie told The Age she believed the new system, which she and her colleagues opposed, looked designed to create winnable seats for Labor candidates.
“The balance will be toward people chosen by dubious preselection processes within the Labor Party,” the mayor, who is not party-aligned, said.
“A lot of councillors will be chosen behind closed doors by faceless men.”
Cr Rennie said she had written to Mr Leane seeking a meeting to ask him to reconsider the single-member ward system.
The mayor of Maroondah, another of the group of eight councils, said he too was against Mr Somyurek’s changes because the current multi-member wards in the outer eastern municipality had the backing of the council and residents.
“The system we have works, the community is happy with the system,” mayor Mike Simon said.
Cr Simon said he too would be asking Mr Leane to reconsider the changes made by Mr Somyurek.
“We will be putting in a submission and asking him to listen to our case,” he said.
Municipal Association of Victoria president Coral Ross, said she and her colleagues had been concerned about the imposition of single-member wards on communities where they were not wanted.
“We will ask the new Minister of Local Government for no changes to single-member wards for the 2020 elections and with the current increase in COVID-19 numbers, for a reconsideration of holding elections this year,” Ms Ross said.
Greens local government spokesman Sam Hibbins said Premier Daniel Andrews had allowed Mr Somyurek to open local councils up to control by Labor factions.
“It’s clear that Adem Somyurek wanted to corrupt our local democracy just as he corrupted the Labor Party,” Mr Hibbins said.
“Councils should be places for local people to represent their local communities, not places for factional warlords to wield power.”
Australian Local Government Women’s Association Victorian president Kylie Spears, who was also opposed to mandated single-member wards, said her group was now focused on trying to persuade Mr Leane to follow the example of NSW and put off the local elections until 2022.
Cr Spears, who is also planning to personally lobby Mr Leane to reverse Mr Somyurek’s call on the timing of the election, said Victoria was already lagging behind other states on women on local councils and holding elections during a pandemic would make matters worse.
“We’re going to go backwards with elections this year,” Cr Spears said.
But a spokeswoman for the state government said it was committed to council elections on October 24 and the new ward system had been devised after talks with the sector.
“The new ward system is the result of a four-year review of the Local Government Act and was developed through rigorous consultation with councils, peak bodies and the community,” the spokeswoman said.
“The wide-ranging reforms in the new act will improve democracy, accountability and service delivery across Victoria’s 79 councils.
“It’s important communities can have their say on their local government representatives – which is why council elections are going ahead on Saturday, 24 October 2020.”
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In an interview in the Herald-Sun on Sunday, Mr Somyurek issued a warning to anyone in the Labor Party who may have conspired in his downfall.
“We will be going down the legal path, I can guarantee you of that. This is not going to stand,” he said.
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age