Labor takes Melbourne council to court over removal of Victoria election campaign billboards

Exclusive: ‘Greens dominated’ Darebin council accused of ‘blatant political interference’ for removing signs in state seat of Northcote

The Victorian Labor party has taken Darebin city council to the supreme court for allegedly removing candidate billboards in what it called a politically motivated attack from the “Greens-dominated” council.

The state election contest between Labor MP Kat Theophanous and Greens candidate Campbell Gome for the seat of Northcote, in Melbourne’s inner north, is expected to come down to the wire on Saturday.

The Victorian Labor party has alleged that in the past two months eight large billboards belonging to Theophanous have been removed from private properties by council without the campaign’s knowledge. Each billboard costs up to $1,163 to create and up to $500 to install.

Theophanous’s campaign team said they investigated and found that the signs had been taken to the tip and two had been destroyed.

The matter was heard in court at 10.30am Tuesday morning but adjourned until Wednesday so Darebin council could have more time to prepare its case.

The council consists of three Labor, three Greens and three independent councillors, although Labor has argued it is “Greens-dominated” as some independent councillors consistently vote with the minor party. The council declined to comment on the matter before it went to court.

A spokesperson for Labor accused the council of tampering in the election.

“This is blatant political interference from the Greens-dominated city of Darebin council, who are acting just like the Liberal-controlled Bayside council in Goldstein during this year’s federal election,” the spokesperson said.

“People have the right to campaign and seek community support without craven political interference from local councils.

“Darebin council is wasting ratepayers’ money engaging in these sorts of dirty tricks – they should stick to their day job.”

There is no suggestion Gome was in any way involved in the billboards’ removal.

A council spokespersonsaid councillors had nothing to do with signage in the area.

“The application of local laws to manage signage in the municipality is an operational matter and as such, councillors have no input into how and when the Local law is enforced by officers of Darebin city council,” the spokesperson said.

“While this matter regarding political signage removal is before the supreme court, it is most appropriate for Darebin council to refrain from further comments to allow for a full and proper process to take place.

“We take these allegations seriously and respect the autonomy of the court along with the importance of the electoral process.”

The Victorian Greens leader, Samantha Ratnam, has denied the party requested the council to remove the signs and accused Labor of dirty tactics.

“When Labor gets desperate, they get dirty. From what I know of what’s occurred, it’s a matter for the council and I urge all candidates and parties to abide by local laws,” she said.

The Andrews government is increasingly worried about losing Northcote, as well as neighbouring Richmond, after the Liberals decided to preference the Greens ahead of Labor.

The Greens briefly held Northcote when Lidia Thorpe, now a Victorian senator, won it at a byelection in 2017 before losing it at the 2018 general election to Theophanous.

The two-party preferred margin is 1.7% meaning the result could come down to hundreds of votes.

It’s not the first time local councils have weighed into an election this year. Ahead of the May federal election, Bayside council in Victoria issue a ban on political signs in front yards, which independent Zoe Daniel challenged in the supreme court and won.

Meanwhile in NSW, Hornsby Shire council threatened not to collect the rubbish of residents with anti-Scott Morrison stickers on their bins.

Last month, the Liberal candidate for Richmond, Lucas Moon, was threatened with enforcement action by the Greens-majority Yarra City council for campaigning without a council permit.

In Richmond, the retirement of veteran Labor MP Richard Wynne after 23 years has given the Greens hope of overcoming a margin of 5.8%.


Benita Kolovos and Cait Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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