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Geelong Advertiser Opinion Piece - International spotlight is on Geelong’s future Council structure

There has been much recent debate about the governance structure of the City of Greater Geelong. The Committee for Geelong has been an ongoing supporter for Victoria's second largest city to have a directly elected mayor. In May 2011, the Committee made a submission to the Victorian State Government's consultation regarding the method of electing a mayor for Geelong and we explicitly warned that to simply graft a mayor and deputy mayor on to the existing structure of twelve single member wards may jeopardise the success of the new system. 

However, the Committee - as a non-partisan organisation - is committed to working with the Government of the day to make the best out of initiatives introduced. Therefore, the Committee supported the Bill that passed the Upper House of the Victorian Parliament in February 2012, and we also supported each mayor elected under it. 

It could be argued that the progress of Geelong has been disadvantaged because of the mayoral system that was implemented, particularly given the lack of support for the mayor from a directly elected deputy mayor, combined with the perceived failure of the councillors, as a group, to work collaboratively.

Following introduction of the legislation, the Committee has continued to encourage the Victorian State Government to retain and improve the directly elected mayoral system, and we have made various submissions on a preferred model. Whilst the Committee's advocacy is not always publicly visible, we have remained committed to promoting positive change through good governance in our city.

The Committee was amongst the first to present to Geelong's Citizens' Jury. We conveyed the message that now is not the time for Geelong to go back to councillors deciding behind closed doors who should be the mayor of our great city - the choice must remain with the people of Geelong. Our community deserves a chance to elect a champion for Geelong who is politically unaligned and has their whole focus on our city.

The Committee's Winning from Second: What Geelong Can Learn From International Second Cities report reinforces that effective local leadership is vital to the success of cities like Geelong. This independent and evidenced-based research was compiled with the assistance of the United Nations Global Compact - Cities Programme and RMIT's Centre for Urban Research, and with support from a range of industry partners such as the Commonwealth Bank.

As Geelong transforms, our city needs strong local government leadership. The Committee believes that mayors directly elected by the people are given a mandate from the people, and can therefore claim to have greater legitimacy to lead in local government. But it only works if the structure is an effective one.

There is a clear desire within our community for Geelong to have a council that will not only efficiently deliver the local day-to-day services that a modern society requires, but will also articulate a shared vision for the future and deliver on priorities that can strengthen our region's economy. Where major projects are identified for the Geelong region, it is imperative to have a mayor that can form strategic alliances and coalitions of support so that projects can be brought to fruition. The City of Greater Geelong needs a civic leader who can increase the prospects of major initiatives being promoted, processed and delivered across a broad economic, social and environmental agenda.  

Whilst the Committee still deems that an effective directly elected mayoral model with a complementary councillor structure would be a strength for our city, we also respect the opinion of Geelong's Citizens' Jury. We believe that the Jury was a fair representation of the demographic cross section of our community, and their recommendation was for the mayor to be elected from among the councillors. 

The Committee acknowledges that the Jury's final decision was very close, with a number of people voting for the directly elected mayor option.  However, the council-elected mayor option was their overall decision. In its report, the Jury made a powerful observation, "…We want those acting on our behalf to keep focussed on the democratic process and, like us, put aside individual and partisan agendas to give Victoria's second largest city the framework to succeed…"

Given that other countries are considering directly elected mayoral structures and new models of governance for their cities, Geelong's system is being scrutinised as part of a larger international debate. The world is watching Victoria's second largest city and, whatever the final outcome of the new legislation, our community has to collaborate to make it work. The economic prosperity of Geelong depends on it.

An edited version printed in the Geelong Advertiser on 12 April 2017.



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