On 25 March 2021 Cnr Milad El-Halabi was arrested by fraud squad detectives at his property in Pascoe Vale over allegations of making false documents.
For context, late last year it came to light that during the 2020 Moreland Council election period — which, due to COVID-19, utilised postal ballots — a candidate allegedly offered $500 for every 50 ballot papers stolen from mail boxes in the North-East ward. These stolen ballot papers were then used to cast votes for the candidate responsible.
The ill-thought out scheme was, unsurprisingly, picked up by the Victorian Electoral Commission (‘VEC’), as a lot of residents who did not receive their ballot paper (on account of it being pinched) were simply sent out a second ballot which they filled in. When the VEC noticed duplicated ballot papers with incorrect signatures, the fraud was discovered. The VEC immediately referred the matter to the Victoria Police and the election results for the North-West ward were referred to VCAT to see whether a re-election was required for the whole ward.
The elephant in the room at the April Council meeting was El-Halabi’s continued presence. No mention of the arrest and the local’s concerns of a potentially undemocratically elected councillor has been offered by Moreland Council. One would think that El-Halabi would try to assure the public, or respectfully stand down whilst investigations are ongoing.
In terms of the repercussions for El-Halabi if the allegations are found against him, under the Local Government Act 2020 (Vic), it is an indictable offence to interfere with material being sent or delivered to a voter by the VEC. The maximum prison sentence is 5 years. Under the same legislation, if El-Halabi is found guilty of this charge, then he will automatically be disqualified as a Councillor.
At this point, El-Halabi is still present at the monthly Council meetings and helping to shape our municipality. Politically, El-Halabi represents developer interests in what is a very ideologically divided council where every proposal is hard fought. According to the legislation, Council proceedings are not invalidated because of any defect in the election or appointment of a Councillor. This means that the longer that this investigation drags on, the longer El-Halabi’s potentially illegitimate and non-representational votes will continue to impact the municipality.
Whilst the charges are yet to be determined, there is still scope for the Moreland Council to deal with the public’s concern. For example, it is within the power of the Moreland Council to apply to the Supreme Court to oust any person from Council if they believe that person holds their position contrary to the law. At the very least, Moreland Council should release a statement explaining why they haven’t done so.
By SAS & BB