Friday, October 24, 2008

'Silencing dissent' letter in The Age

Today's edition of The Age carries my letter on the proposed laws regarding Councillor conflict of interest. Follow the link to see it in the paper, or read on:

Your editorial rightly identifies the desire of state governments to keep local councils in check - perhaps especially so where community candidates threaten the positions of Labor councillors who too often fall weakly in line with state government policies.

The proposed conflict of interest laws are an expression of this desire which, in its broad scope, would impose a presumption of constraint on councillors' decision-making. Instead of attending to the merits of an issue, dissenting councillors will be plagued by a fear of running foul of laws that target their past community engagement, rather than any real conflict.

Your excellent editorial, articles and letters on this issue provide a clear-thinking rebuff to Wynne's anti-democratic nonsense.
Be sure to ask the position of your Labor Unity Councillors on this important issue!

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

'New Northcote' or Council election stunt?

A plan to make over High Street Northcote featured in this week's Northcote Leader seems like a very positive proposal. The widening of footpaths, a 40kmh limit from Westgarth Street to Dundas Street, and a host of other measures promise to calm traffic, promote pedestrian safety and resident amenity, not to mention strengthen local businesses.

Like many local families, I certainly have concerns about speeding along High Street, and the risk of fatalities in places such as light-controlled pedestrian crossings, where cars running red lights are a regular hazard. As a keen local shopper - not only to support local businesses, but for the community feel and environmental benefits - I see many additional pluses in the proposal.

Unfortunately, I strongly suspect that it's only a temporary election sweetener to boost the chances of ALP Councillors in November. The plan will not go to consultation until January, and I am doubtful that it would be ultimately approved by a State Government that very much favours roads over public transport, and is dominated by the Labor Unity faction to which all our current Darebin Councillors belong.

Should I be wrong, my further concerns, which I will be expressing as part of the consultation, are that residents in other main roads such as St George's Road, Victoria, Westgarth and Station Streets (less so in the latter case because of the recent commitment to 40kmh), should not be disadvantaged by an isolated plan for High Street. While, as a resident living close to High Street, I would love nothing better than to enjoy the improvements to safety, amenity and community that would come were this plan to be realised, what about the residents on those other, more heavily populated roads? We need a comprehensive approach, including for the inclusion of cycling lanes.

While the plan has certainly come out of the blue, it is unsurprising in its feel-good character following the self-congratulation festival also known as Monday night's Darebin Council meeting. Darebin residents need to look hard at such proposals and wonder why there's so much hollow good news as we come to election time.

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Brumby moves to muzzle councillors

In yesterday's edition of The Age, ('Personal issues vote ban', p.1, 22/10), Kate Lahey and Jason Dowling write about Councillor conflict of interest laws set to go before the Victorian Upper House. The laws are an attack on democracy and must be rejected.

If, as Lahey and Dowling identify, some earlier expressions of their views may preclude Councillors voting on an issue because of deemed conflict of interest, it stands to undermine the legitimate democratic reasons candidates campaign to be elected – that is, because they have policies they believe will benefit the people they would represent in the Council Chamber.

The laws should instead target the hidden, and sometimes financial, motives that might influence a Councillor's vote – fertile ground, I should think, for Minister Wynne's reforming zeal.

It is this distinction - between having views on an issue and a pecuniary interest in it - that was picked up in today's excellent Age editorial. There were also many well argued letters to the editor published in today's edition (Scroll down the letters page to 'What's good for the goose...').

How telling that John Brumby's undemocratic proposal comes just as community candidates and reform by the Victorian Electoral Commission are challenging Labor's power base in Councils such as Darebin in November's elections. While Parliament will decide on these laws, Darebin residents should ask Council candidates their views on this important issue, and vote accordingly.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A dodgy report card for 'democratic' Darebin

A report card featured in Monday night's meeting of Council shows Darebin's worst performance across five areas was recorded in the category of 'A Democratic City'.

Based on results from the annual Darebin Community Survey, only 50% of Council Plan Indicators were achieved in this category, compared with 83% in the same category in 2006-2007 and 66% in 2005-2006.

Yet even these figures are rubbery, despite Darebin's commitment to 'transparent reports on our performance' (Annual Report Summary for 'A Democratic City').

Within the Democratic City category, Council scored 73% 'approval' for its performance on community engagement against a Council Plan target of greater than 67%. However, notes for this indicator (p.37 Annual Report), show that the 73% figure includes community responses of 'adequate', 'good' or 'excellent'. This leaves 27% of responses presumably in the categories of 'poor' or 'very poor'.

We are also not told the numbers responding or the levels of approval/disapproval across years. The years 2006 and 2008 both recorded 73% on this indicator, but without the full report, we cannot tell if there were more or fewer responses of 'adequate' in these years - not to mention responses of 'very poor'. The figures released hide a true picture of Council performance over time.

The same report card showed a delay in the review of the City of Darebin Community Consultation Policy and Guidelines (p.41 Annual Report). This was to be completed in 2008 but has now been pushed back to 2009 - after the election.

Council's report card was celebrated on a night of self-congratulation by Darebin Council. It was also a night when Council's Kevin Breen could not confirm a start date for its online service allowing residents to track Darebin planning applications - this despite an October 2007 assurance it would be available by the end of that year.

As the system would offer significant improvements to the transparency of planned developments in Darebin, that's another cross in a report card that needs a lot more ticks.

See also 'Council elections and democratic renewal'

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Council resentment lingers over representation review

Monday's Darebin Council meeting was the last for Mayor Peter Stephenson, and a veritable hit parade of Council's claimed achievements that was nicely timed to bolster the electoral chances of the handful of Councillors choosing to contest November's election.

On this night of self-congratulation there was, however, a clear and continuing resentment of last year's Darebin representation review, in which the Victorian Electoral Commission recommended the move from nine single-councillor wards to the three three-councillor wards to be elected in Darebin in November.

Rucker Ward Councillor, Steven Tsitas, spoke of the potential for 'duckshoving responsibility', proposing that the three new, larger wards be divided into 'clear internal boundaries' of responsibility (strangely that would mean nine de facto wards). Councillor Mendo Kundevski spoke of a loss of 'accountability' compared with the old system.

Those who participated in the review saw Council fight tooth and nail to prevent change. However, that wasn't because of accountability. It was due to the fact that the new structure threatens to break the 100% Labor Unity strangle-hold on Council.

The old structure entrenched the nine Labor Unity councillors because preferences under that system (majority preferential voting) worked very much in their favour. In contrast, the new system (proportional representation), limits the effectiveness of a host of ALP running mates contesting the election only to direct preferences to a key ALP candidate.

The new system therefore gives other candidates, including independents, a fairer chance of being elected - despite the challenges of campaigning in larger wards.

In its representation review, the Victorian Electoral Commission considered the issue of accountability in multi-member wards, and on balance decided that the benefits of the new structure outweighed any disadvantages. Many community submissions argued for the change, and the VEC found these persuasive. I made two submissions and presented at the public hearing.

The final report, preliminary submissions and response submissions to the review are still available at the VEC website. Local Government Minister Wynne announced his approval of the new structure back in July last year in this media release. He thought it was a good idea. The City of Darebin didn't think so (and here).

Coverage from the time is available in previous posts.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Independent to run in Darebin elections

Last Wednesday (15/10) I made a decision to run in the 2008 Darebin Council elections. It will be interesting to see what kind of balance there is over the coming weeks in reporting by local media, who were sent this media release the same day.

Local independent to run in Darebin elections

Community campaigner and long-time Northcote resident, Darren Lewin-Hill, will run as an independent candidate for Rucker ward in November's Darebin Council elections.

'This election will bring sweeping changes to Darebin Council, and independent, progressive candidates can help bring about a renewed Council that's better at listening to local residents, more open in its decision-making, and more accountable for its actions.

'Residents should feel free to question their Council, and they deserve answers – including at Council meetings. They should also ask themselves just how easily they can get hold of their current Councillor, and what sort of attention they receive for their concerns.' Mr Lewin-Hill said.

'We don't need invisible Councillors we only hear from at election time with grand claims about the role they played in every Council achievement,' he said.

Key issues for Rucker ward and Darebin included pedestrian safety and speed limits on local roads; true consultation on development; global warming and the environment; the protection of public open space; services promoting community well-being; advocacy for low-cost housing; cuts to gaming machines; the promotion of local businesses and local shopping; and community participation in decision-making. A full statement of policy positions would be available soon at, he said today.

'The public interest will be the main focus in decisions I take, and I will work with any Councillor – Labor, Green or independent – who has that same goal in mind,' Mr Lewin-Hill said.

Changes to the electoral system in Darebin – in which three Councillors would be elected to a much larger Rucker ward – offered the chance for new faces on Council, Mr Lewin-Hill said.

'The changes put a hard question to many current Councillors, who would require substantially more support this time around than was needed to elect them under the old system. It's not surprising that many won't contest this election,' Mr Lewin-Hill commented.

He campaigned for the new fairer system during last year's representation review by the Victorian Electoral Commission. Another of his recent campaigns focused on asbestos safety in a major public housing redevelopment at Roberts Street, Northcote.

Mr Lewin-Hill previously ran as a Council candidate for planning group, Save Westgarth Village, in 2004. In 2006, he ran as an independent for Northcote in the Victorian State election.

Married to a social worker, and a father of two children in primary school, he works in the communications field, mainly in the education and training sector.

Darren Lewin-Hill mobile: 0404 526 555 email:

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hundreds make submissions on CPRS Green Paper

As of today, the Department of Climate Change has published more than 900 public submissions on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) Green Paper. My submission (No. 398) has only recently appeared, so I can only surmise that there must have been a flood of submissions on the last day or many late submissions were accepted, as mine was sent mid-afternoon on the deadline, Wednesday 10 September.

The responsiveness of the bureaucracy in making the submissions available has been decidedly poor. Add to that the possibility of substantial numbers of submissions made confidentially that will never see the light of day, and I think the transparency of this process leaves much to be desired.

While a late submission from the Business Council of Australia (No. 812) is now open to scrutiny, what other organisations and lobbyists have submitted under a veil of secrecy, hopeful of influencing the Government's decision while avoiding the need for a difficult public defence of their arguments? The Department of Climate Change should report on how many confidential submissions were made, and at the very least give an indication of the numbers submitted by category - for example, by industry associations and lobbyists.

On a more positive note, the sheer scale of submissions is indicative of the importance accorded by the public to framing effective policy to address dangerous climate change. Many environmental groups, community organisations, businesses with a sustainability focus and individuals have taken the trouble to argue the case for strong action on climate. Good on them!