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