To: Prime Minister, All Federal Members of Parliament

Bring Democracy Back to Local Councils

The federal government now does not wish to go ahead with a 2013 referendum seeking to change to Australian constitution so that federal funding can be used to help local government.

I call on parliament to overcome its fears of a failed referendum and instead press ahead notwithstanding, taking up measures that will lower the likelihood of this failure. Naturally, such measures are those which heed the concerns of citizens voiced in the December 2011 report by the expert panel on “Constitutional Recognition of Local Government”.

That report documents a widespread feeling within the public that local government abuses bureaucratic power and that local government is “corrupt”. The main argument voiced against recognition was that local government simply does not deserve recognition. I believe my personal experience shows these perceptions of many local governments as “abusive” and “corrupt” are often with good grounds.

These problems could be hugely lessened by the right kind of constitutional recognition, such as that including guidelines like the following (clearly details would need to be worked out):

1. That local government shall be answerable wholly to democratically elected representatives and the interests of local government administrators shall be subordinate;

2. The election of these representatives should be by both ballot and sortition, the latter to strengthen democratic systems against corruption;

3. There shall be at least one elected representative for each 1 000 (or like number) citizens;

4. Elected representatives shall be beholden to ensure full and forthright truth and fair dealings with citizens;

5. There shall be procedures to ensure elected representatives must declare real or potential conflicts of interests and can be confident that other elected representatives can stand in their stead on such matters.

6. A set proportion of elected representatives shall be ballot-elected, full time and remunerated or otherwise supported by the state in a way that both relieves them of the need for further wages and which reflects the weight and solemnity of the community’s high expectations of honesty and forthrightness;

7. There should be a right to free speech in discussing council matters

Given the backstop of constitutional obligations, common women and men serving as councillors would then have a great deal more confidence and a great deal more protection in enforcing matters of governance which I believe they are reluctant to enforce now.

Why is this important?

My personal experience is that local councils are often out of control and behaving as though they are answerable to no-one. In the practice of such dysfunctional councils, it is the administrators (CEO and executive) that run things as they see fit, sometimes bullying citizens who try to hold them to account: even using council funds liberally to silence dissent with legal action. Such an environment makes major corruption almost inevitable. Constitutional protection is needed to allow citizens to participate in local government without fear or favour.

Councillors themselves have little real power to stop this kind of behaviour. They are forbidden from directing council administration (on the face of it, a reasonable convention), but when it comes to matters of governance like upholding truthful and fair dealings with citizens, they can be cowed into backing off by unscrupulous administrators who convince them that every matter is one of administration. Recent dilution of powers of councillors by the Baillieu government through their changes to the Victorian local government act will only worsen the problem.

Such dark behaviours are begotten not of malice or “evil” but of the simple stresses of everyday life. They begin when overworked administrators force their tasks to completion by abuse of power, not because they seek to hurt citizens but simply to avoid “failure” in a system that is fault intolerant. These behaviours can swiftly escalate to coverup; again the need for coverup springs from a fault intolerant, overstressed system whenever there is a lack of answerability for one’s deeds. You the reader, I the writer and actual administrators all are overwhelmingly likely to follow this path. We are all women and men with feet of clay. The central idea of good governance is that we acknowledge our feet of clay, and define behavioural guidelines to follow when stressful times come along with instincts to behave defensively. We CAN be both imperfect, and still have honest, vibrant government systems. Genuine good governance is not about retribution, it is about acknowledgment of shortcomings as individuals, the need to look after each other in gathering the courage to behave honourably as a group and building environments where faults become simply problems to be solved as a community. The dark alternative is that faults become deadly threats that must be withstood at all costs, sometimes even where these costs are a stooping to antisocial or criminal behaviour. This is why openness and answerability to common people is vital, in the literal meaning of this word.

A constitutional definiton of the roles of elected councillors together with a clear edict that it is the administration of councils that shall be subordinate and answerable to elected representatives would improve local government democracy a great deal. Its casting in the constitution would give the position of councillor a weight that would:

1. Help get rid of the councillor who simply sees a controversy-free period in local government as a success at being a politician with “training wheels” that will earn him or her preselection by their party for “higher” levels of government, rather than as a solemn and deeply meaningful community service in itself;

2. Help overcome the instinct to flee and coverup by appeal to another of our deep instincts: that to be a social animal and behave towards others as one would ask of the behaviour of others towards oneself.

Democratic Victorian local government was destroyed by the coming of the Kennett era commissioners then sham councillor positions with little power to be other than puppets. Constitutional recognition of councillors would still let state government run local government, but would ensure that local government democracy could never again be swept aside without the assent of the people.