Victoria’s local government good governance crusader, the Municipal Association of Victoria has been embroiled in internal conflict, insiders say, because of claims of nepotism and favouritism involving its most senior officials.
Under Victoria’s previous Labor government, mostly seen as doing an appallingly reactive job on local government, even banning electorate officers and political staffers from serving on councils in a manner unlikely to survive legal challenge, the MAV was even given a role in the enforcement of the local councillor code of conduct. Some councillors have told VEXNEWS the MAV’s role in this process is putting up people in judgment of councillors who have an unrealistic and harsh perspective on the matters before them.
The MAV is in fact a creature of statute, with its own Act of Parliament. In the world of local government, it’s a big deal, perhaps considered more prestigious than active.
SIR HUMPHREY OF NASCAR
At the apex of it is its CEO, the long-serving, mostly well-regarded ex-local council bureaucrat Rob Spence, who was recently reappointed to another four year term after initially getting the job in 1997. Spence is a smooth dude, by all accounts, and has managed the egos of those appointing him (councillors elected from across the state) for fifteen years. A task beyond non-superhumans.
It’s in that context that revelations that the very long-serving official’s son Cameron is also working at MAV as its Procurement Manager are causing a stir in Victoria’s tight-knit and gossipy local government sector.
IDLE BOASTS FUEL FIRE
Adding fuel to the fire is widely circling speculation that the Spence family has taken advantage of its powerful position in the government agency.
On Cameron Spence’s Facebook page, the motorsport enthusiast appears to be unwisely and stupidly boasting about MAV’s sponsorship of his racing car.
As you can plainly see, in response to the suggestion from a friend “Good to see our council rates at work” (under a picture of the car), Spence appears to boast “Yeah…Making a difference!”
This was perhaps not the wisest response for a Procurement Manager of MAV to make in a public forum.
As it turns out, the Spence family are patriotic motorsport enthusiasts, surely making them freedom-loving freaks among the world of chardonnay-sipping leftish local government cardigans, and Rob Spence has emphatically denied, on the record, that any public or MAV monies were used in sponsorship of the Formula Ford car bearing the MAV’s insignia.
He explained to VEXNEWS:
“In 2008, we moved into national Formula Ford racing with television coverage. Given that I did not have sponsorship and did not intend to chase it because of the sensitivity with my job, I took the decision not to waste the space on the car and badged it “Local Government – making a difference”. I did it in the interest of raising the profile of the sector. (It was) low cost to me and (I thought it) might raise the sector profile in a different demographic.”
What Formula Ford fans made of the assertion that Local Government makes a difference isn’t known. One could only speculate.
GROSS TO THE RESCUE
At the time, the MAV’s popular President Dick Gross tried to hose down concerns about it with his customary good grace and humour:
The use of the sector-sanctioned slogan and a nationally applicable website is expected to surprise and positively influence spectators to consider any misconceptions of the sector they may currently hold.
He used humour and inner-city put-downs to manage the fall-out over what appears to have been a unilateral and controversial call by Spence:
For those of you who know and love Robbie our CEO, appreciate that he has one serious weakness – he is an unreconstructed and unrepentant petrol head. He runs a race team that is going national this year with his kamikaze son Cameron at the wheel. Robbie has donated some space on the side of his car as a national promotional activity to raise the level of awareness of local government and to engender positive associations with the sector.
But Spence was most emphatic about the zero cost to ratepayers:
So to answer your question, there has never been any sponsorship from the MAV.
We suppose he means financial sponsorship because the photos do suggest otherwise.
And he pointed out to nosy parkers from VEXNEWS that even though he could wangled a tax-advantage here and there out of the inherently loss-making labour of love, he and his son chose not to go that way, applying their own after-tax dollars to the hobby of champions. Fair enough.
SOME NOT HAPPY
Even VEXNEWS would struggle to judge a zero-cost arrangement too harshly although councillor critics of MAV wonder whether the same liberal standards would be applied to them if they used MAV’s branding for their own personal enterprise. One suggested they might seek MAV’s non-financial sponsorship for a tournament of dwarf-throwing to test whether they could get the same deal.
Others have told VEXNEWS that motor sport is inconsistent with MAV’s do-gooding policies on climate change and so on. VEXNEWS of course supports the right of every petrol-head to rev up in the name of free people everywhere. We don’t think sour-faced Greens Lee Rhianon or Christine Milne or her local government equivalents should determine how fast people can drive on a racetrack.
ANOTHER VICTIM OF THE FACEBOOK
None of Papa Spence’s innocent account explains Cameron Spence’s curious musings on Facebook, where he appears to have been adding to speculation that public monies were used. Not smart. You might think the Procurement Manager of MAV would be alive to the sensitivities of such boasts.
When we pressed Papa Spence for answers on that, none were forthcoming despite a generally open and frank response to comprehensive questions that we couldn’t otherwise fault.
The other delicate issue raised by VEXNEWS sources was the circumstances of how a local government statutory body charged with championing good governance in local government came to be employing the kamikaze son of its long-time boss.
Nepotism is a serious charge in this world of the precious, and when we asked Spence about it, he provided a lengthy explanation and justification of the arrangement, essentially saying he had nothing to do with his son getting a senior role in charge of procurement in the organisation and that he had no role in managing him:
Cameron commenced employment at the MAV in September 2009. The job was publicly advertised and he was recruited through an independent transparent recruitment process with full Board knowledge and agreement.
I did not have any involvement in the process and his appointment has been well publicized within our sector.
Cameron is paid the same amount as all MAV managers. He reports to another executive at the MAV.
So that’s good news, everything’s above board and nothing to see here.
Generally, we’d have no issue with the bloke giving his son a job, as long as he could do perform the duties, but when those involved are involved in unleashing sanctimony on local councillors, they would want to be maintaining the highest possible standards of probity themselves.
In fact, Papa Spence has put it to VEXNEWS that the arrangement has been a Godsend for ratepayers and the Victorian public:
By the way, the MAV procurement team of four are doing a great job providing significant benefits to Councils and ratepayers by reducing the cost of council purchases. MAV Procurement is a not for profit with an annual revenue of $600k with all benefits going back to the members. Our Board took the decision to enter the procurement area following the State’s Ernst and Young Report which identified potential savings for Victorian local government of a minimum of $350 million annually through improved procurement practices.
Spence raises a good point. VEXNEWS recalls seeing City of Melbourne budget papers around ten years ago that recorded the proposed price to be paid for a desktop computer to be at least double what the prevailing price was for a computer with exactly the specifications as advertised in the once-popular Age Green Guide. Not sure what was going on there, but it appears Mr Spence Jr has plenty of work to be going on with.
Other elements of widespread local government speculation that Spence was keen to dispel included claims about town that his trusted lieutenant Alison Lyon was white-anting his leadership, perhaps hoping he would have moved on rather than seeking and getting another four-year term in charge of MAV. He insists they have a “close and trusting working relationship.” Good to hear.
“She’s a real b*tch,” one local government insider told VEXNEWS “so he’d better watch his back.”
Good advice for all high office-holders with impatient deputies milling about.