Eeny meeny miney mo, who will you vote for?

'Vote early and vote often' was a cynical election slogan in less salubrious times with dead people often kept on the rolls so their votes could continue to be harvested!  There are different forms of malpractice and corruption today and the real election in many safe State and Federal seats doesn't take place in public but behind party room doors where pre-selection is determined.  In local government it's hard to even get people to take an interest, yet elections are the touchstone of democracy, and those on the last Saturday in October will be your last chance until 2016 to exercise this important political right …… or should I say privilege, if one thinks of places like Syria and Afghanistan.

In some ways local councils affect people much more directly than State or Federal governments.  They aren't just about rates, garbage and dogshit on the footpath; rather they are all about the sort of community you want to live in.  Since the Kennett government amalgamated local government in Victoria into 79 councils they have become big corporations managing assets worth $60 billion and collecting about $7 billion in revenue each year.  Their bureaucrats have become both more expert and professional, much more powerful and inevitably much more self-serving.

For both the elected councillors and the general public, council bureaucracies have become increasingly difficult to deal with.  In theory the councillors set the policies and the officers of the council carry them out, but this is a far cry from the actual power situation.  They don't call themselves public servants any more and this name change is symbolic of the fact that most of the officers give greater allegiance to the bureaucracy that pays their salaries rather than the general public that indirectly employs them by paying rates.  It's not much different from a corporation where the shareholders have equally little say in how private companies operate or how much the CEO gets paid.

The Port Phillip CEO is paid over $300,000 and the elected councillors get paid a modest stipend fixed by the Department of Local Government of around $20, 000 per annum, an amount clearly based on the assumption that it's a part time job.  If councillors carry out their duties conscientiously it would take up at least half the week and any councillor with a full time job or profession would find it pretty difficult to do both well.  As a result most councillors don't have full time jobs and young people with families to support are pretty well eliminated from standing for election. 

If you are to be an effective councillor, you have to quickly learn the subterranean and bureaucratic ways in which local councils work and how to cope with reading and then voting on the actions contained in a 5 centimetres thick pile of paper bowled up by the officers before each weekly council meeting.   So we shouldn't be surprised that the officers make the running and usually it's their proposals that get voted on and adopted; the councillors would have to be very determined to alter any major initiative by the officers.  The officers pay lip service to involvement of the public, but as recent community forums to determine a 'vision' for the Triangle have shown, the outcomes are largely orchestrated and pre-determined by the officers.

Being a councillor is such a thankless task that one has to ask why anyone wants to take it on, yet there is no shortage of candidates.  In the 2008 elections there were 1975 candidates for 631 seats, roughly three aspirants for every seat!  Although in most councils the major political parties do not formally endorse candidates, many of them have open party affiliations, and local government has become one of the established training grounds for State and Federal politics.  After the Ombudsman found unacceptable levels of political interference by the Labor Party in the affairs of Brimbank Council, councillors are now banned from working for members of parliament.  Serving the community often takes second place to party political advancement for councillors with wider political ambitions.

The grounds for conflicts of interest and corruption are also ever present in a situation where changes in zoning or planning regulations can often increase the value of development land considerably.  Local councils are the second highest subject of complaints to the Ombudsmans office; more than three thousand complaints a year apparently, which says something about the transparency of most council deliberations!  There have recently been serious allegations in Glen Eira over conflicts of interest, there are investigations under way into Darebin Council and there is a separate investigation into Casey Council. 

The way the Triangle development was handled by the previous Port Phillip Council was the subject of a damning report by the Ombudsman who found multiple instances of conflicts of interest and even stated that he simply didn't believe the evidence of one councillor.  One of the councillors criticised for a blatant conflict of interest was Dick Gross, a colourful identity who lost his seat in the election that followed but who is presenting himself for re-election in October. He's hoping that the voters have short memories and will give a second chance to a man who voted to remove their democratic rights to appeal.

Unfortunately the electoral system permits candidates not to have to declare financial contributions until after the election is over, which isn't much help, and the most you will ever get from most of them about their attitudes or policies is a 150 word Motherhood Truth and Beauty statement on their How to Vote cards.  For all these reasons The Age reported recently that a government sponsored community-satisfaction survey regularly shows that as many as one-in-five Victorians rate their council's performance as less than adequate. 

The City of Port Phillip where I live is an interesting case study of all of the above.  There are seven councillors, four of them are members of the Labor Party, two councillors were elected under the unChain St Kilda banner in the wake of the disastrous shopping centre proposed for the Triangle, and there is also a Greens councillor.   The Labor councillors are also members of CAPP (the acronym stands for Community Alliance of Port Phillip) founded by the joining together of local community groups in the 1990's when the councils were amalgamated.  It's the oldest citizen action group in Port Phillip, is generally regarded as a front for the Labor Party and is very effective as demonstrated by the current CAPP majority on the council.  CAPP were also the driving force behind the Sustainable Environment Community Reference Committee that came to a sticky end during the current term of Port Phillip Council because of the intransigence of some of officers who didn't want citizens to be so directly involved in policy making. 

Another St Kilda group who has largely lost its raison d'etre is the Esplanade Alliance.  It was founded to fight a forty five storey tower on the Espie Hotel site (in which it was successful) but is now an elderly rebel without a cause with trouble mustering a quorum.   The most recent citizen action group is UnChain St Kilda, which came into existence largely because of the inaction of both CAPP and the Espie Alliancetowards the shopping centre proposed on the Triangle site.  It has since changed its name to UnChain Port Phillip in view of its wider political ambitions and is still basking in the portrayal of unChain in the film 'The Triangle Wars' and what it sees as it's glorious 'victory' on the Triangle. 

It was nothing of the sort of course.  Despite a vigorous and colourful campaign by unChain, the BBC development was legally approved unchanged by the last council, withstood legal challenge at VCAT and would have been built by now except for the Global Financial Crisis which, fortunately for all of us, caused the $400 million earmarked for the project to evaporate.  

I should declare an interest here; I was a member of unChain from its inception and wrote the formal 40 page unChain objection to the BBC development.  I resigned recently because of efforts to censor my criticisms of the council and the officers in this newsletter. 

UnChain intends standing candidates in all seven wards and has recently written a 29 page document setting down pussy cat policies on everything from primary schools to poker machines.  Worthy enough, but there isn't much evidence of the old fire for change and reform left I'm afraid.  I haven't met all their candidates, live in hope and wish them well.  There is a rumour abroad that the four current veteran CAPP councillors plan to stand down and not contest the election which, if it's true , could herald a welcome generational change.

During the term of the current council, the UnChain councillors have generally been ineffective in expediting progress on their one big issue, the Triangle.  This was largely because they didn't have the numbers to force the issue, and have accepted the officers' relaxed timing about the restoration of our third party rights.  And they also went along with the highly ineffective way in which the officers have guided a ponderous 'public' consultation process to get agreement to their 'vision' for the Triangle!  

One of the current unChain councillors stood unsuccessfully for State parliament in the middle of the council term and got 10% of the votes.  All perfectly legal, all he had to do was stand down from council during the election period, but when I vote for someone I hope he or she will serve out their full term rather than putting their own ambitions first.  All aspiring candidates should be asked what their intentions are in this regard.

Getting better, more capable and more principled candidates is only the first step of course.  How to counter the enormous imbalance in power between the seven elected councillors and the 500 strong bureaucracy in Port Phillip is a much more difficult question to answer, but clearly the first step is to elect tougher councillors who are prepared to stand up and argue with the officers. 

It's simply disgraceful after four years in office that the current Port Phillip council hasn't restored the third party rights of citizens to appeal to VCAT (democratic rights that are held by all other Victorians) and even worse, that the officers plan that they will not be legally restored and gazetted until 2014.  By then it will have been more than ten years since they were removed by Dick Gross and his mates!  It's also a disgrace that the officers have been powerful enough to subvert the good democratic idea of a citizen-led environmental policy committee.

Port Phillip is not unique of course, and there are similar things happening in most other councils.   So make your vote count, do some research into what your candidates stand for and ask hard questions to find out exactly what they would try and change if they were elected.  Your local community, and indeed the quality of democracy itself in Victoria will be enhanced if you take the trouble to get involved.  All that is needed for more of the same is for good women and good men to do nothing!

Don Gazzard
August 2012