Paul Mur­ray

The West Australian - - INSIDE COVER - PAUL MUR­RAY

Why pol­i­tics can be a blight on lo­cal coun­cils

When­ever party pol­i­tics has raised its ugly head in WA lo­cal gov­ern­ment, there has rarely been pub­lic ev­i­dence of head of­fice con­trol.

And that’s prob­a­bly be­cause the ma­jor par­ties re­alised there was a bit of a stink around their in­volve­ment in coun­cil af­fairs, which peo­ple ex­pect to op­er­ate at a com­mu­nity level, not cap­tive to par­ti­san or ide­o­log­i­cal con­cerns.

As WA Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Lynne Craigie noted re­cently, po­lit­i­cal fac­tion­al­ism “in­fests” the sec­tor in other States.

“Coun­cils in WA are for the most part free of ar­rant party po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence,” Craigie said. “Lo­cal gov­ern­ments would be ex­pected to re­flect their com­mu­nity’s pref­er­ences and cer­tainly in­di­vid­u­als have po­lit­i­cal lean­ings.

“But WA is for­tu­nate not to have the bla­tant align­ment with ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties that in­fests lo­cal gov­ern­ment in some other States.”

Greens Fed­eral leader Richard Di Natale blew the cha­rade apart this week with some loose com­ments about Aus­tralia Day.

“The Greens are plan­ning to use their num­bers in lo­cal gov­ern­ments across the coun­try to spear­head a push to move Aus­tralia Day, fol­low­ing suc­cess­ful moves to can­cel cel­e­bra­tions in sev­eral coun­cil ar­eas in Melbourne and West­ern Aus­tralia,” the ABC re­ported.

Di Natale had opened up on Melbourne ra­dio about the Greens’ mo­tives in run­ning can­di­dates in coun­cil elec­tions.

“We’ve got over 100 Greens coun­cil­lors right across the coun­try and we’re mak­ing sure this is a con­ver­sa­tion the en­tire com­mu­nity en­gages in,” he said.

“It’s got to be done at a grass­roots level, work­ing through lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

“We’ve al­ready been lead­ing the way at Dare­bin coun­cil, Yarra coun­cil, Fre­man­tle coun­cil, where we’ve got a strong Greens pres­ence, and we’ll con­tinue to have those sorts of con­ver­sa­tions right across the coun­try.”

This is not the first time the Greens’ in­ten­tions to ad­vance their agenda through lo­cal gov­ern­ment in WA has been overt.

As I noted in a col­umn in Septem­ber 2015, Greens WA co-con­vener Giz Wat­son had dis­closed the party would run 11 can­di­dates in up­com­ing coun­cil elec­tions, but de­clined to name them or where they were run­ning. So much for open­ness.

The col­umn ex­plored the emer­gence of party pol­i­tics in the City of Perth in the lead-up to that year’s may­oral elec­tion and the un­de­clared La­bor con­nec­tions of Cr Reece Har­ley, who was chal­leng­ing un­aligned Lord Mayor Lisa Scaf­fidi.

The year be­fore, a pro­gram called Coun­cil Con­nect be­gan qui­etly “for in­ter­ested WA La­bor mem­bers who are com­mit­ted to work­ing through lo­cal gov­ern­ment to see the ideals, plat­form and poli­cies of WA La­bor ap­plied and re­alised at a lo­cal com­mu­nity level”.

“Through pol­icy fo­rums, panel dis­cus­sions and train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, Coun­cil Con­nect will help de­velop the skills and tools a coun­cil­lor will need to be ac­tive in and run for lo­cal gov­ern­ment,” a party doc­u­ment said.

This ap­proach is con­sis­tent with Fabian So­ci­ety tac­tics — well en­trenched in WA La­bor — which ad­vances the prin­ci­ples of so­cial­ism through grad­u­al­ism, rather than by revo­lu­tion.

Coun­cil Con­nect had its in­au­gu­ral meet­ing on Oc­to­ber 23, 2014, hosted in Par­lia­ment House by now Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Min­is­ter David Tem­ple­man and with be­lea­guered Darling Range MLA Barry Ur­ban, then a mem­ber of the Ser­pen­tineJar­rah­dale coun­cil, among the 26 del­e­gates pic­tured in a Face­book post.

An­other present who has since made the big time was Bic­ton MLA Lisa O’Mal­ley, now a cen­tral fig­ure in the Gov­ern­ment’s City of Melville in­quiry af­ter be­ing elected to the coun­cil in 2015.

O’Mal­ley was a pan­el­list at a Coun­cil Con­nect fo­rum on May 27 along with City of Fre­man­tle coun­cil­lor Hannah Fitzhardin­ge and Bel­mont’s Lau­ren Cay­oun.

This works into a wider nar­ra­tive about the McGowan Gov­ern­ment’s real in­ter­est in lo­cal gov­ern­ment, which de­serves deeper ex­po­sure. Just join the dots.

The Greens eat into La­bor sup­port from the Left, so the ALP’s coun­cil moves are un­der­stand­able from that stand­point alone, given the smaller party’s re­lent­less grass­roots ac­tivism.

The Lib­er­als’ in­volve­ment in lo­cal gov­ern­ment is less or­gan­ised — if at all — but still quite ob­vi­ous in many coun­cils.

For ex­am­ple, Op­po­si­tion Leader Mike Na­han’s elec­torate of­fice re­searcher Ben Kunze is a mem­ber at Can­ning, whose coun­cil was sacked by the Bar­nett gov­ern­ment in 2014.

Long-term coun­cil watcher Diana Ryan, through her Can­ning Ac­count­abil­ity blog, says there are two overt Lib­eral Party coun­cil­lors, an­other five of the 11 are Lib­eral-lean­ing, two are La­bor and one is Green.

But the most in­ter­est­ing is Cr Gra­ham Barry, who was elected on a plat­form of op­pos­ing party pol­i­tics in lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

“I’m against coun­cil in­volve­ment in pro­pos­als like chang­ing Aus­tralia Day and gen­der is­sues,” Barry said in his cam­paign ma­te­rial. “That’s for Fed­eral and State gov­ern­ments to de­cide.”

Pol­i­tics aca­demic Martin Drum, from Notre Dame Univer­sity, sees the politi­ci­sa­tion of lo­cal gov­ern­ment in WA as in­evitable.

“But we the vot­ers should be told of party af­fil­i­a­tions,” Drum told me this week. “Af­ter all, such af­fil­i­a­tions say a lot about the gen­eral val­ues/ be­liefs a can­di­date holds.

“They also have the po­ten­tial to com­pro­mise a coun­cil­lor or mayor’s duty to rep­re­sent their con­stituents at a lo­cal level. If we know about this though, we can call it out when it hap­pens.

“I would amend the WA Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Act to re­quire all can­di­dates for lo­cal gov­ern­ment to de­clare their mem­ber­ship of any po­lit­i­cal party reg­is­tered at State or Fed­eral level. These would then be pub­lished in a timely fash­ion be­fore vot­ing com­menced.

“This would be pretty easy to in­clude on the nom­i­na­tion form and would en­sure ap­pro­pri­ate trans­parency. It won’t stop party pol­i­tics in lo­cal gov­ern­ment but would at least shine a light on it.

“In lo­cal gov­ern­ment in NSW and Vic­to­ria, po­lit­i­cal party fac­tions dom­i­nate to such an ex­tent that some coun­cils don’t change hands for sev­eral decades.

“There’s no real po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion, which can’t be good for democ­racy.”

While I agree on the need for trans­parency about po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions and the strong po­ten­tial for com­pro­mise due to party al­le­giances, I’m not so sure about his fi­nal point.

It might be in the par­ties’ in­ter­ests to en­shrine po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism at coun­cil level, but it doesn’t ben­e­fit ratepay­ers.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Don Lind­say

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