LOCAL ACCOUNTABILITY March 17, 2008Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics.
So what does accountability mean in Liberal Democracy?Take the comparatively trivial case of Wollongong City Council whose elected councillors were sacked when ICAC (The Independent Commission Against Corruption) found that there corrupt relationships between Council employees and property developers ( or, is there more to it than that?).
Wikipedia carries a summary:
In February 2008, Council was the centre of a major ICAC inquiry which revealed favourable treatment to local developers from certain Council staff including former town planner Beth Morgan. The inquiry heard evidence that Morgan was involved in sexual relations with 3 developers whilst assessing their developments. There was also evidence presented of an impersonation of ICAC officers and plans of intimidation.  This attracted significant media attention and renewed calls for tightening of rules of developer donations to political parties.    The Premier Morris Iemma also agreed that rules would be tightened as several of his Ministers have been implicated in this scandal.  On 4 March 2008, following recommendations from Commissioner Jerrold Cripps QC, the Local Government Minister approached the Governor of New South Wales to formally sack the council and install a panel of administrators for four years citing clear evidence of systemic corruption in Council. 
The consequence was that the Council was sacked by executive decree, and now local democracy has been abolished for the next four and a half years. There are no mass demonstrations, because local government is seen as simply a means to an end, and so it is about management. Therefore, lets fix the hierarchy.
The alternative is something like let’s make management accountable to the electors because surely the wrath of the voters would have been as severe as any set of “expert” administrators. Furthermore, it may have forced the residents, such as myself, accept their responsibility, namely their lack of participation in local matters. It must be observed the Wollongong City Council is a large enough organization to require expertise, but expertise and representative democracy are inconsistent. Liberal Democracy is a conversation about means and ends, and nor need we suppose that the citizens are wholly ignorant about the relevant matters of expertise.
So does it matter? Or to ask another question: To whom doesn’t it matter? The answer to the latter question I would have thought is to those who believe that resources are scare, that we are engaged in an existential competition to get and have more material resources independent of any assessment of human needs and the sustainability of life on the planet, and the role of government is to allow them the freedom to play the great game of winners and losers. The great game is the definition of freedom.
The contending view is something like for some strange reason, dimly understood, other people matter, and that all life, including community life that allows people to follow their own purposes in the light of their own reason, requires attention and care. Is it all other people, or just a few others that constitute a reference group? Consciousness and life, of which I know next to nothing, are nonetheless qualities. Life requires care and attention in the absence of self sustaining life support systems, and democracy, unlike the power structures of organization systems, is not a self supporting system.
I suspect that when the social life of the neighbourhood dies, the democracy that consists of voting at election elections and commenting on current developments, often reduced courtesy of television to the politics of spectacle, and much of the contending media to the politics of spin. As we have had evidence the politics of spectacle and spin can be managed, with the result that marginal views can be framed as mainstream views, establishing system constraints that limit what is possible regardless of what is known.
Still, when we have governments, and even if there main function is to collect the garbage (outsourced to private contractors), there is the opportunity for democracy. Local government addresses the neighbours, the places where we live. For example, it is possible to see who you and your neighbours are from the Census data. I cannot believe that in four and a half years after the establishment of a new beaut clean management system, we will be better off. The question will remain to who should the management of the council be accountable? Should it be to the State Government, or to the residents? What will the processes of accountability be then, that seem to be so absent or neglected before?
ELSEWHERE: 18 March 2008
Andrew Bartless reviews the results in the Queensland local government elections held over the weekend. The relevant quote, to our local concerns:
In other councils, one significant feature, at least in some areas, appear to be the success of mayoral candidates who ran on a platform of opposing (over)development. Ron Clarke’s strong showing – he should still be the favourite to win – on the Gold Coast is one example of this. Melva Hobson’s win in Redlands Shire over former Bjelke-Petersen Minister (and local state member) Paul Clauson is another. The big win – 70 per cent to 30 per cent – by former Noosa Mayor, Bob Abbott, for the new Sunshine Coast Council, over former Mayor of Maroochy Shire, Joe Natoli, is another case where the candidate more opposed to overdevelopment had a strong win.
Even more significant is Val Schier’s win in Cairns over long-serving pro-development Mayor Kevin Byrne. It seems the vote against Kevin Byrne in the areas formerly covered by the Douglas Shire – such as the Daintree and Port Douglas – which are most at risk of overdevelopment, was pivotal to this result.
However, it is probably over-stating things to say there is a big trend away from developer supported candidates. There are some other results which signal more of a business as usual approach in that regard.
I did make a comment there that was slightly out of order for lack of relevance – but it would not be here.
Another matter that Andrew Bartlett notes is that first past the post majority is still used in Queensland. Since preferential voting has been the democratic norm in the rest of Australia beginning in 1919, perhaps Queensland, lagging for now, will introduce proportional representation. I find it particularly disappointing that their is no Aboriginal representation at the local government level there, and that the range of views, including cultural affinities, are not represented at the local level. I think it was telling that while the Howard Government in its dying days called for referenda on council amalgamations in Queensland, no provision was made for local democratic government in the Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory. In general, it is not clear who represents IndigIneous opinion.
BACK IN THE GONG – 20 March 2008
Iemma sacks all Wollongong City Council because of a ICAC finding suggesting systematic corruption, and evident corrupt behavior by Labor councillors, but does not find cause to sack a State MP who had a private loan and later represented the interests of that property developer. Any election cannot come too soon to clean out such people. It may mean we will have to bide our time.