Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Goings on in the Melbourne City Council : the weakness of local government in NSW and Victoria

There's a bit of a brouhaha over at the Melbourne City Council.  At the heart of the matter are concerns by some about electoral reform.  Matters of concern include:
  1. Voter eligibility
  2. Direct election of the Lord Mayor
Victoria and its capital city, Melbourne, 
have some practices which I regard as nothing less than 'quaint'.  

I have spent a large slice of my working life employed in local government.  I have worked in Local Government in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria and in the Department of the Legislative Assembly in the Northern Territory in a position which meant that I worked closely with local government.  Based on this experience, my view is that Local Government in New South Wales and Victoria is weak. If I were to put my views more strongly, I believe that Local Government in New South Wales and Victoria is neutered, white-anted, kept at bay by the State Governments of the respective states.

I believe that inclusion of Local Government in the constitution could strengthen local government vis a vis State and Commonwealth Governments.  While State Governments have the power to dismiss a specific local council and install an administrator, to me it seems that in NSW and Victoria local councils are on a roller blind.  There is a track record where Premiers of both conservative and labor sides of State politics have rid themselves of bothersome councils.  I would hope that constitutional recognition of local government would make this attitude less prevalent and provide some basis for fightback at the local level against decisions made in Spring and Macquarie Streets.  

However, let's take away the prospect or otherwise of constitutional recognition of local government and deal with matters as they are now. Let's look at the two issues above in light of my accusation of Victorian 'quaintness'.

The capital cities of NSW and Victoria, Sydney and Melbourne respectively, have councils which occupy only the CBD and close inner suburban areas of those cities.  Then the remaining suburban areas have their own councils.  Over the years amalgamations have occurred to enlarge these councils for the purpose of greater financial efficiencies.  The City of Brisbane is not like this. The differences between Brisbane on one hand and Sydney and Melboure on the other are significant and, in my experience, otherwise knowledgable people are not aware of the difference and their implications.

Voter eligibility

In the City of Melbourne, voter registration is dependent upon being over 18 and being an owner or occupier of a rateable property.  This appears to be a hangover from the archaic once-common practice whereby only actual ratepayers were entitled to vote in local government elections. 

It is amazing that any voter eligibility in this day and age has any connection whatsoever to property.  In short, if you are homeless in the City of Melbourne you are disenfranchised - even if you have spent your whole life within its boundaries. At best, this practice is 'quaint' and antiquated.  Voters rolls within the City of Melbourne should be dependent upon the electoral roll maintained by the Australian Electoral Commission and the relevant State electoral organisations.  There are no property connections whatsoever in relation to voter eligibility for State and Commonwealth rolls and elections.

Direct Election of the Lord Mayor

 While the Lord Mayor of Melbourne is directly elected, out in the 'burbs the councillors take turns in being Mayor.  That last bit is not quite true.  The local suburban council elects a mayor for a twelve month period. In councils which remain in the control of one side or another over an extended period, 'taking turns' can become manifest as the side rewards each in turn with their own little twelve-month place in the local sun.

What does it matter, you might say.  Earlier this year, the City of Brisbane experienced extensive serious flooding.  When the Lord Mayor of Brisbane spoke, he spoke for the CBD and all the suburbs of Brisbane. He could speak with authority and unity.  Clover Moore in Sydney and Robert Doyle in Melbourne were they to be  in a similar circumstance could not speak for all the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne - but only the respective CBD and related inner suburbs. 

There can be difficulties with the direct election of the Lord Mayor.  In Brisbane, because the Council Wards are so large, councillors salaries are set in accordance with salaries of State Members of Parliament simply because the Wards are similar in size to State electorates.  For a councillor to become Lord Mayor means giving up a seat that has been built up over time and a good salary to risk loss in a Lord Mayoral race.  This means that the Lord Mayoral race is usually between candidates who have no experience on the City of Brisbane Council.  In short, they are outsiders without the detailed knowledge of Council decisions and practices.  

I believe the practices in NSW and Victoria which don't allow for direct election of Mayors weakens local government in those states when compared with local government in Queensland.  I believe that local government is stronger in Queensland because they demarc themselves, to some extent, against the City of Brisbane Council.  The strength of local government in Brisbane impacts across the state.  I don't mean to suggest that Queensland is the land of milk and honey in relation to local government.  I wish to suggest that it has strengths which are not particularly evident in New South Wales and Victoria.  

The twelve month stint for Mayors in Victoria, outside the City of Melbourne, means that there is little opportunity for a local person to build up a successful and effective power base within the local community.  This benefits State Governments, irrespective of which political party holds the reins of government.  It means that the political parties don't have successful locally based politicians putting up successful runs for pre-selection for parliament.  Party machines can have their way in political pre-selections more readily to get up their favoured apparatchiks.  

My years in local government have shown me that the way Local Government works best is when there is a strong Mayor and a strong CEO.  Weakness on either side means ineffective or less than optimal governance.  When the Mayoral position is weakened - as it is when there is no direct election for the role - the unelected CEO becomes the dominant force.  At its worst this means either rubber-stamping by elected representatives of CEO initiated policies and decisions or disruption and dysfunctionality in decision-making by the elected body. From either of these factors, further adverse consequences can follow.

Reform is needed in Local Government in Victoria - but not necessarily in the way a lot of Victorians think.

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