The following extracts from the diaries of Age columnist Adelaide Grant describe her campaign to have Citizen Initiated Referenda adopted, and how this lowered the rates and made Port Phillip Council more democratic and sustainable.
During the Triangle war in St Kilda, unChain made a submission to an Upper House Committee of Enquiry into the development of Crown Land in Victoria. We met them on site before a meeting to discuss the Triangle, and I was paired off to look after Pat Barraclough, Shadow Minister for Local Government. He was a few years older than me, and was sharp and cool in his Zegna suit and designer stubble. He flirted outrageously, whispering would I have lunch with him afterwards. I told myself it would give me the chance to persuade him of the justice of our cause, and we ended up talking our heads off about the state of the world all afternoon over a couple of bottles of red wine. We've kept in touch ever since, he's the only politician I know well, he's smart and I like him.
My grandfather always said technical problems could be solved but it was much harder to improve our political processes so that they worked better. I agree with this and my Age column inevitably became an outlet for my political frustrations. My new friend Pat, now a Minister in a Liberal government, often rang me when I wrote about reforming things like the Upper House, or adopting the primary system of selecting candidates, and we usually met and continued these discussions over a cup of coffee. It was my mind he found attractive, he always assured me as he leered down my cleavage, and it was through this intellectual sparring and a burst of opportunism that I was asked to serve on a Select Committee to enquire into the public transport needs of Melbourne
Adelaide alsostuck by her intention to get direct political experience and was elected onto Port Phillip Council in the 2020 elections. She was soon disillusioned at the difficulty of changing such a large bureaucracy, and described her experiences as follows:
The Council of the City of Port Phillip represents around ninety thousand citizens and employs over five hundred staff. The staff had great strategies and policies for everything except action! They were all written in that 'managerial-speak' Don Watson excoriated so well in his book 'Death Sentence,'and as long as they had a written strategy they weren't too concerned whether anything was ever achieved. They had answers for everything, everything took too long so people soon lost interest in being involved with them. The Council made a song-and-dance about involving the public in making important decisions but the officers didn't have enough confidence to truly engage in seeking the truth or finding the best solution regardless; they weren't ever open enough to change their minds and most of the intelligent public soon turned off and got on with their lives. It was a pity so much citizen talent was sidelined by a pack of bureaucrats!
I've always hated Margaret Thatcher's term 'the nanny state' but I was forced to admit that the Council was a soft bureaucracy, and some people even went so far as to describe it as a sheltered workshop. It simply wasn't sustainable, direct salary costs were over half of the total rate income collected, and the cost was much higher of course if all the on-costs were taken into account. Councillors like me were effectively sidelined dealing with development applications and the multitude of other routine stuff the staff pushed up to the Council for formal decisions. In theory the councillors decided on policies and the staff implemented them, but it didn't happen like that, and suggestions to reform the process soon ran out in the sands of the bureaucracy.
I talked it over with some of my fellow councillors, and we agreed we probably wouldn't win in a head on fight with the bureaucrats, that the change would have to come from on high. So I went back to pushing a barrow for citizen initiated referenda with my Minister. We'd kept in touch after the Select Committee, he found sitting in the House all the time a bit tedious and regularly slipped out for tete-a-tetes in Little Bourke Street. We had one of those 'might-have-been' relationships.
I left him in no doubt I was happily partnered, and I suspect he was the same, but the possibilities of what might have been in different circumstances, enabled us both to act as though anything was possible, flirt outrageously and get on very well.
My modest role in the Public Transport Enquiry had been a success, largely because I rewrote the report in non-bureaucratic English so people could understand it. I think he thought I might hit the jackpot for them again as the polls showed that they'd become really unpopular. I often wrote about the citizen referendum idea in TheAge and got such good responses that I badgered him to put it to Cabinet. You'll never be unpopular again, I kept telling him, the people will propose what's important to them and then vote on it, if enough people say yes the Government will implement it, and the people will love you for it; it can't get any better than that, I said. He told me later that he'd repeated my words exactly to the Cabinet and they had simply agreed without discussion.
Most people don't realize that citizen initiated referenda were almost incorporated into the Australian Constitution when it was being written in the 1890s, and it remained on the Labor Party platform until 1963. It's one of the main planks of the Swiss system of government, and is used in a number of places in the USA, particularly in California. So it's hardly a radical or untried idea, and is firmly rooted in the concept that a decision by the people as a whole will be right more often than a decision made by any elite group.
The major political parties have always been suspicious because they don't want to relinquish any political power and they're always sure they know what's best for us! I think our system needs constant improvement, and that a system of citizen initiated referenda would be a good first step to shake up the conservatism of both our political parties.
I'd done my homework by visiting both Switzerland and California at the Age's expense to understand how their systems worked. Because so many issues in Switzerland are decided by referenda, I was a bit surprised to find their political parties had ceased having anything like the importance they do here. For obvious reasons I didn't labour this point, but I was completely up front about the mistakes made in California. Referenda aren't as common in sunny California as in Switzerland, and because voting isn't compulsory there, advantage had been taken of this to vote in tax reductions that in one case, had almost bankrupted the State.
My proposal was deliberately conservative; a referendum could only be initiated if five thousand registered voters signed a petition advocating it, and when the proposers got the numbers, the referendum had to take place within six calendar months. Voting was compulsory and if more that 65% of the people voted yes,the government was required to implement legislation within six months. Referenda on taxes and money bills were not allowed, but a referendum had to be held automatically on any government proposal to spend one hundred million dollars or more.
My Minister put it to the Cabinet and they agreed to a referendum to decide if citizen initiated referenda should become law, and 82% of our fellow citizens, bless'em, said yes.
In August 2024 Adelaide described how citizen referenda changed local government forever:
The Elwood Greens immediately proposed a referendum that all houses and flats in the City of Port Phillip should be made energy and water sustainable by 2025. This had been talked about for ages but the Council had never had the nerve to implement it; loss of jobs the development lobby kept saying, loss of jobs, when the opposite proved to be the case!
This proposal required ratepayers to insulate their apartments and houses, to collect rainwater to flush toilets and water gardens, to install solar heaters for hot water and space heating plus solar collectors to generate electrical power. Air conditioners and dishwashers were banned unless the owners generated enough power for all their own needs. And all new apartment buildings had to have roof gardens so there was the potential for tenants to grow their own vegetables.
Sounds a bit tough and do-gooding, but there were subsidies for some of these requirements for pensioners and Seniors, and it's a sign of people's concern about climate change that the referendum was passed easily. There was a howl from real estate and development interests that it would affect their sales, but it supported my view that the people are smart enough to act in their own long-term interests even if there was some short-term pain, that we're not entirely governed by the bottom line.
Some referenda will be rejected and some of these would no doubt be resubmitted again for further consideration, with more experience, changing public sensibilities and greater attention to detail. After all, it took three tries before the good burghers of Zurich accepted a scheme to improve and co-ordinate their public transport system, which is now acknowledged to be one of the best in the world. The people are not stupid and it's not a pushover that all referenda would be approved.
Now comes the good bit. Over the last ten years, allotment gardens like the one at St Kilda with its 140 allotments, had been established on council owned land in each of the electoral wards. They'd all become dynamic community centres, much more so in my view than the Council itself, so I initiated a referendum that would split the Council and transfer the major part of council activities in each ward to their garden committee so local ward citizens could manage things in their ward directly.
It had been estimated there'd be a saving of more than 55% of the annual wage and on-costs, which would enable the rates to be reduced by more than 50%. The staff hated it of course, and I even got a death threat. They also challenged our legal power but the court supported us, and a majority approved the referendum that followed.
OMG, it worked like a charm. An administrator and a couple of planners were transferred to each of the ward gardens to help them to handle new development in their ward and act as technical advisors to the committee and citizens who turned up at meetings. If any of those legal planning strategies and policies had to be updated, we simply hired a consultant to deal with it. A small central office controlled all the money, and the rump of the staff looked after what they called our 'assets' in bureaucratese, replacing cracked footpaths and blocked drains, collecting household wastes and cleaning the streets et cetera.
The remainder of the staff were given generous severance pay and the rates were reduced by 50% so people could afford all those desirable environmental changes, changes that will reduce energy costs as well as emissions and help moderate the effects of climate change. The officers in each ward were based at their community garden, there was as little paper as possible, everything was written in plain English and everyone in the ward could take part in these discussions and vote.
The thing I really liked about it was that everything was handled in an intelligent, non-bureaucratic way with speed and good humour. Small really is beautiful and people were quick to participate in a responsible way once the covert obstruction of the earlier bureaucrats disappeared. And while they were pleased to take part it wasn't a pompous big deal and most people were happy to get back to mulching! There were far fewer appeals to VCAT as applicants could see they were being treated fairly by their peers, rather than some faceless planner who knew best! Councillors like me went to the meetings (where I had one vote like everyone else) and we kept a joint eye on the parking, roads and garbage people, and even wondered if all that couldn't be simplified even further as it was already mostly subcontracted.
The immediate success of all this wasn't lost on the State government and other councils, and most departments and agencies started slimming down and being more open in case a referendum might pop up and put them on the spot. One is required to be modest, and believe me I am in public, but I couldn't help secretly gloating over the success of my aim to make Port Phillip a more participatory 'grass-roots' democracy; a friend dubbed us the Athens of the South!
A flow on from the devolution of Council power to the gardens led to the establishment of Men's Sheds that further contributed to the real sense of community that these places represented:
An unused building on the back part of the Port Melbourne garden became an informal 'mens shed', a place for retired blokes to hang out. They started repairing and recycling all that stuff people put out for disposal, and fixing simple things like a broken latch on an old lady's front gate or replacing rusted gutters for an old pensioner; they ended up almost becoming a full time social service.
I persuaded the Council to chip in petty cash to pay for things like new guttering if there wasn't enough available, but that generation of older guys were good scroungers and not much money was ever needed. If there was any debate the gardeners decided what should be done, there was no detailed accounting of every cent, and in any case there was usually enough cash to pay for the odd things that were needed. The mens shed became another aspect of living sustainably in Port Phillip, so we extended the idea to all the other gardens.
Adelaide had her detractors of course. Left wing people in particular didn't like the idea of a bureaucracy that 'served the community' being broken up to reduce the rates. She answered her critics saying;
There's nothing wrong with saving money, particularly if our society becomes long-term water and energy sustainable as a result. But efficiency wasn't my primary motive in suggesting changes, I just happen to think that an open, more democratic Council encourages participation by more people. Too many past societies collapsed under the weight of an administrative, a priestly or a military caste, and for our society to become truly sustainable everyone has to play a role. The bureaucracy had simply become too large and unwieldy, imposed far too high a cost burden on the ratepayers, and many of the staff had acquired an unhealthy sense of entitlement. We'll all be better off if they do something practical to support our sustainability on the planet.