Friday, November 7, 2008

Council elections and democratic renewal

With our eyes turned to the US and the hope of democratic renewal that may come with Barak Obama's historic victory, the seemingly minor matter of 79 Victorian Council elections later this month is easy to overlook. Yet, when it comes to democratic renewal – better representation and more participation by citizens – the scale of constituencies at the local level might well offer our best chance for high standards to be set.

In recent years, the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) has made significant progress in local representation reviews that for many Councils (including Darebin) will see proportional representation used in the coming elections. In these Councils, the voting system and larger, multi-Councillor wards will mean a better chance of election for candidates who appeal to what the VEC calls 'communities of interest'. Effectively, candidates with strong backing on local issues, but not necessarily majority support, now stand a good chance of election.

Applied retrospectively to Rucker ward where I live and am running as an independent, the new electoral system would likely have meant the 2004 election of a Green, and of two ALP Councillors – one from the Left and one from the Right. On first preferences, these were the three most popular candidates and would likely have achieved the quota of slightly more than 25% of the vote necessary to each gain one of three positions. Three significant pockets of support, together comprising more than 75% of the formal vote, would have achieved representation.

What we got instead under majority preferential voting – the old system – was a single Councillor from Labor Unity (the ALP Right), Steven Tsitas, who actually came third on first-preference votes and was bumped over the necessary 50% by a slew of preferences from a field of 13 candidates.

Worse still, Labor Unity got up in all the eight other wards, mainly because the system advantaged the large number of factionally aligned candidates – whether or not they were all publicly recognised as such. ALP heavyweights benefited from running mates who were too often contesting the election only to direct preferences up the line.

The result was a Council entirely dominated by a single faction of a single party – Labor Unity – the faction not only of our local MPs, but of the Premier, John Brumby.

This circumstance raises at least two important questions. Firstly, what kind of representation is achieved by a politically monopolised Council? Secondly, what level of advocacy can residents then expect from their Council when community views conflict with the policies of a Labor State Government?

Despite the VEC's recommendation for Darebin Council, and its 2007 endorsement by Local Government Minister, Richard Wynne, two Councillors – Mendo Kundevski and Steven Tsitas – used the 20 October Darebin Council meeting as a platform to decry the changes. Campaign material from Tsitas vows to 'remedy the situation' – referring to the claimed lack of accountability where more than one Councillor represents residents in each new, larger ward. That the VEC considered and dismissed this concern doesn't seem to matter.

The need for new, more diverse voices is only underlined by Premier Brumby's recent attempt to muzzle community candidates should they be elected. As reported in The Age, proposed changes to Councillor conflict-of-interest laws threatened to target not the clearly inappropriate financial motives that might influence the votes of some Councillors, but their past community engagement.

Under the proposed laws, certain previous expressions of a view on a particular issue – be it development, public transport, roads or the protection of open space – would have rendered Councillors ineligible to vote on these matters. The hobbling intent was clear, and the recent Brumby backdown in the face of a community protest on the steps of Parliament shows that politically diverse voices of opposition can be effective in promoting the community interest.

This story of monopolised representation, Council resistance to reform, and hobbling of alternative points of view is only one side of the democratic coin. In his recent, excellent book, Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, Paul Ginsborg argues that successful democracies must combine strong representation with participation – the capacity for citizens to influence decisions by taking part in deliberations in a sustained way.

By way of a possible model, Ginsborg cites the 'participatory budget' of Porto Alegre in Brazil. Though not without its challenges, there the sustained, year-long participation of an increasing number of citizens in setting the budget has had a demonstrable impact on local government decisions and their alignment with community priorities. Ginsborg sees a key role for local government in democratic renewal through such participation combined with better representation.

Voters in Victoria's local government elections should ask how often shallow 'consultation' and 'focus groups' are passed off as participation in decisions about important local issues, and what other more democratic models might be considered.

And so we come back to the 20 October Darebin Council meeting. In the Council Chamber the claimed achievements are on display, a festival of self-congratulation calculated to benefit Councillors seeking re-election. Unfortunately, a quick glance at Council's vaunted 'report card' launched that night reveals big cracks in the glass.

Of five measures of its performance, Darebin Council scores worst in the area of 'A Democratic City'. A big jump in the number of confidential documents considered by Council comes with further news that a badly needed review of Council's 2002 consultation policy has been pushed back beyond the election. Some 27% of responses to a community survey have also shown Council's community engagement to be inadequate or worse. In fact, for 2007–2008, Council has achieved only 50% of its own indicators of democracy.

I invite you to think about these important matters of local democracy, and the chance for democratic renewal at the November 2008 Darebin Council elections.

Back to my campaign website


For Ginsborg's consideration of Porto Alegre, see pp. 69–75 of Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, Profile Books, London, 2008. Ginsborg sees a particular role for local government – hence his chapter title, on which I have drawn, 'Local government and the renewal of democracy'.

For Council's performance as 'A Democratic City', see pp. 36–41 of the City of Darebin Annual Report 2007/2008 and its Annual Report Summary 2007/2008.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.