Reflections on the elections…

There's a graffiti on a Sydney underpass that says, 'Don't vote, it only encourages them!'  Despite the fact that voting was compulsory in the recent Victorian local government elections and postal voting was available, my council openly says you won't be fined for not voting if you live outside the council area or you're over seventy.  I must say at my age this was a tempting offer, but old habits die hard. Was it Churchill who said 'democracy is not a great system, but it's the best we've got!'

The Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) website showed that on average only around 50% of the total enrolment voted and there were on average 350 informal votes in each of the seven wards.  Failure to vote is supposed to attract a $70 fine so I'd be fascinated to find out what happens to all those who didn't vote, they can't all be over seventy. According to the VEC, the total Port Phillip enrolment is just under 80, 000 people so the half who didn't vote should each pay a $70 fine. Presumably the 2.8 M in total fines that would result goes to the Victorian Electoral Commission for managing the election, so the council doesn't have any financial incentive to do anything about it. 
As voting is compulsory I think it should be enforced, and I can't help wondering whether the result would be any different if everyone had voted?

As always there were some small hypocrisies with all candidates making much of the fact that they were independent, although in some peoples eyes this only meant not being a paid up member of theLabor, LiberalorGreensParties; the implication being that they are not independent, that the parties tells them how to vote, something I find hard to believe on most council issues!  

Most candidates don't conceal their party memberships and this gives us an idea of their ideological bent and how they might vote on particular issues but unendorsed members of the major political parties don't seem to me to have any more relevance in terms of bias than a person who has voted all her life for one of the major parties, as most of us have.  On this occasion only the Greens endorsed candidatesand there was an internal brou ha-ha because some of them broke party ranks over preferences.

UnChain Port Phillip, a local group who fielded candidates in every ward was by far the best organized in a visual sense with full page ads in the local paper, full colour posters and pamphlets and How to Vote cards, all proudly proclaiming, in caps, that they were 'TRULY INDEPENDENT' but despite this ended up with the same voting power in Council as last time.

What all the parties said they stood for is more of a problem. Most of them weren't prepared to face up to the financial implications of continuing the St Kilda Festival.  The Greens had a good short sharp ten point list of where they stood. It was a bit Motherhood but perfectly OK.  The four Community Alliance of Port Phillip (CAPP) candidates also had a much the same sort of manifesto that was also quite acceptable.  UnChain had a thirty page document which took much longer to read but was also unexceptional, and on the whole could be summed up as 'more of the same' echoing existing council policies. 

None of them were as much fun as the wish lists of those standing for the Melbourne City Council.  As the Age tersely said of them,
'big promises, grand schemes and no budget or jurisdiction to deliver!'  These included a light rail link to Tullamarine, large underground car parks in the CBD, a free Swanston Street tram and a free weekday ferry between the North Bank and Docklands, and an indigenous candidate wanted to change the coat of arms to recognize our aboriginal history.  One of the few achievable ideas that made traffic sense was aGreens proposal to close Elizabeth Street between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane (except for trams) and create a landscaped people space; the less cars the more liveable the city and in my opinion this future space could be extended at least as far as Bourke Street.  None of the Port Phillip aspirants (or any of the CoPP officers come to that) has had the wit or courage to propose anything creative like this in Port Phillip; what about the perennial closure of Acland Street?

I'd vote for anyone who was  'truly independent ' and stood up to the council bureaucracy, I'd vote for anyone who regarded those 'vision' documents that are paraded as fulfilling community ambitions with the jaundiced, realistic eye they deserve.  I'd also support anyone who asserted the primacy of the elected councillors in determining policy and budgets.  The problem is not about avoiding the election of candidates who may or may not be members of specific political parties, but electing smart and dedicated individuals who have good policies and are prepared to resist the slow flattening steam roller momentum of a bureaucracy of the size of Port Phillip

These desirable aims will only happen when there is some realistic collaboration between the seven councillors in the face of a common adversary, particularly as there is little to choose between the policies of any of them. 

The people elected in the seven Port Phillip wards were as follows:

Albert Park Ward:            Amanda STEVENS    (CAPP)
Carlisle Ward:                     Vanessa HUXLEY    (UC)
Catani Ward:                      Serge THOMANN     (UC)
Emerald Hill Ward:            Anita HORVATH     (CAPP)
Junction Ward:                       Andrew BOND      (Ind. Lib)
Point Ormond Ward:           Jane TOUZEAU      (UC)
Sandridge Ward:                 Bernadene VOSS      (CAPP)

If we persist in grouping the successful candidates, CAPP gained three seats, unChain won three seats, and an unendorsed Liberal won Junction Ward. 
The Greens closely missed election in three wards; is this further evidence that most people don't want mainline political parties in local government?  

The voters of Junction Ward are to be congratulated in not electing Dick Gross who got less than 23% of the votes.  He was one of the Triangle councillors who voted to remove our democratic rights to appeal and who was roundly criticised by the Ombudsman for his conflicts of interest at the time; he deserves to fade out of further public office! 

Amanda Stevens and Anita Horvath were the only elected councillors who answered NO in my straw poll about the future of the Festival. They both had the financial responsibility to saythat if funding was not forthcoming they would vote to wind up the Festival in its current form. One of the new council's priorities should be to set a deadline to make this decision, rather than hope triumphing over responsibility yet again.

There are other big financial challenges facing the council quite apart from the potential extra $1.7 M black hole in the council's budget left over from the previous Council's irresponsible last minute decision to proceed with an unfunded Festival next February.  For example, during the last Council's term in office, the wages bill has increased 39%- from $46.13 M to $65.4 M, and the annual flood bill for Elwood I s set to double to $4 M this year. 

It's interesting that during the election, none of the candidates even mentioned reducing the budget or the rates as any sort of priority.That's the way the officers like it, and the budget process is probably already quietly under way to be presented to the councillors more or less as afait accompli; only a few cosmetic changes are ever made. 

A responsible way for the new council to proceed would be to set budget and rate reduction targets of say 15% NOW so that this reduction is used to structure the budget rather than trying to cut it back later after it's in its final form. 

All ratepayers are feeling the pinch, and rather than automatically increasing the rates by the maximum amount that the State government permits, councillors should be finding ways of reducing them; it won't be that hard, there's a lot of fat in that $65 M wages bill, and being tough in a responsible way is the only way we'll ever become a truly sustainable society.

And I would trust that the incoming council ignores staff opposition and starts up the Sustainable Environment Community Reference Committee again, as the first of other responsible citizen involvements with the council, as distinct from all that vision waffle we've had inflicted on us about the Triangle; the sort of public consultation you have when you don't want any real citizen involvement or to make any hard decisions.

One of the first and most important decisions will be to select a new mayor.  The mayor is in the front line in dealing with the CEO and the officers, and Frank O'Connor's role in quietly negotiating the end of the BBC-Triangle contract by himself was the best thing that happened during the term of the last council.  In view of the alarming budget situation we need a financial and legal hardhead as mayor, someone with enough courage to really engage with a bureaucracy that will resist any reduction in size.

The old council was split 4 CAPP to 3 UnChain/Greens and their regular voting in opposing blocs was more about personalities rather than any policy differences.  The previous CAPP personalities retired at this election so the opportunity exists for some sort of serious rethink this time around.  If CAPP and unChain persist with their stupid stand off, their equal numbers will create the odd situation in a Left leaning council that the balance of power will be held by the Independent Liberal councillor.

It is therefore hoped that this important choice will not be decided along party lines, personal ambition is not enough, the councillors should try and work together and select the best person for the big job ahead.

One thing is certain, if the councillors don't hang together, they will all hang separately.  And we will all suffer as a result.

 Don Gazzard
29 October 2012