Electoral Mayhem on our Front Doorstep

Early in the morning of 8 December 2016 I was the recipient of an initially cheery:

“Hi Bruce this is ____ _____. How are you today?” phone-call.

When someone on the phone, in an unexpected call, asks me “How am I today?” I am immediately on my guard. In this case it  was the recently appointed Mayor of our tiny Borough with its 3,000 voters, who wanted to talk with me about the letter that had, that morning, been published in the regional daily newspaper(see below). I immediately said that I was not prepared to talk with him over the phone on this matter, he then seemed to get agitated, talking on and saying that I had indulged in what was a “cheap shot”. I told him he was welcome to visit me later in the day to explain this criticism when others would also be at my place. I was not going to talk over the phone on this matter and I was not going to discuss it with him one-on-one.

“Thanks for ringing and good morning!”

This was my letter as published today by the Geelong Advertiser

From the Advertiser’s article last Friday, we learn that the recently appointed  Mayor of the Borough of Queenscliffe has now taken on the “top job” in the Bellarine  Liberal Party. This candidate now continues to tell us what he asserted during the campaign, that rather than being a politician he simply “looks to the future”. So why were electors not informed of his future intention, even if it was only then a remote possibility, during the election campaign itself? And perhaps more importantly, why does the Liberal Party allow itself to look so deceitfully furtive as the “behind the scenes” player, keeping its intentions from display until after the election? How will the new Mayor, and his political crew, explain why they haven’t been profoundly disrespectful to Borough electors and Bellarine voters? I guess we will be provided with the usual flapdoodle, but they should grow wise about the difficult task of LGA public governance and realise that a community’s civic trust is not advanced by “hidden hand” trickiness.

He did not turn up. And perhaps that’s not so bad. But clearly the fellow was rattled by the letter and clearly the issue is front and centre in our current political crisis.

Readers may note that my letter to the Geelong Advertiser is couched in terms that refer to offices and office-bearers rather than “personally”. This is because we are dealing with a political issue of some complexity that pertains to the duties of an elected public officer. In my view this is “good practise” when dealing with public life and especially when political questions are raised about the legitimacy of some or other policy or procedure.

Any person elected to public office remains accountable to the electors that they now represent – even those who did not support the election of this person. And while an elected official should be able to discuss political matters with his/her electors, it does not follow that electors will necessarily feel free to discuss one-on-one with an elected official. We should not be surprised if some citizens are somewhat ill at ease in discussion with public officers, particularly with those who have been elected. They may, for some reason, lack the confidence to raise issues with the elected person, especially if it is to be in a one-on-one exchange. They may also have a lack of trust that their views will be understood, let alone heeded, and this may be due to what they have experienced on previous occasions. And mere election to office does not necessarily mean that the elected poerson is able to discuss political matters in an open and frank exchange.

In this respect the current Mayor, puts himself at a severe disadvantage when he says that he is not a politician. There will be those who say, “But we all know what he means by that!” but in fact we do not. It is an obfuscation. In fact, even if he had no intention of doing so, it sends a message that he does not wish to engage in discussions that he terms political. As stated, this is a very unfortunate political position to take not only because a Mayoral office is a political office, but because it implies an unwillingness to engage in any discussion with those with whom he has political differences. Is he now only prepared to enter into discussion with those who politically disagree with him on his terms? The standpoint is unsustainable.

As I interpret it, we are dealing with a public officer, who is also an elected public officer, who is like many of us when it comes to clearly distinguishing between the various responsibilities we retain, both public and private. Hence, my heightened concern that any such contentious political discussion – which could so easily involve profound political disagreements – be properly managed. This is not just a matter of the relationships “the other guy” has with other people. It is also a matter anyone, like myself, has with “others”.

Clearly the letter rattled him, but in fact it said less, and was less critical, than an article “How many hats can a mayor wear?” in the Queenscliff Herald (December 2016 p.3). That article effectively asks how many more public hats we in the Borough are now expected to indulge during the time of this Mayor’s incumbancy.

But then, let’s not reduce this problem to that of but one elected councillor. Nothwithstanding his repeated statement that he is “not a politician”, there are indeed various public layers and kinds of political responsibility that need to be kept in view here.

This man with his many roles was nominated for Council. Presumably, his nomination was declared valid by the designated Council officer and by the Victorian Electoral Commision which oversaw the election. This is the first point that needs careful examination.

Some are clearly not at ease with a serving senior police office – whatever his duties may be – standing for (another) public office. It seems he remainins as a senior seargent holding significant duties in a vitally important police taskforce.

So the question is: since when were serving public servants such as police officers allowed to stand for other elected public service (and hence political) positions?

The fact that now the incumbent of the Mayoral office is also heading up the Bellarine Liberal Party’s attempt to defeat the Labor incumbent in the next State election – who also just so happens to be Police Minister in the current State Government – simply renders the complexity even more intractable.

Actually, it is not certain that the member is going to represent the the electorate for which she has been a Member of Parliament for some years. I may be wrong but has she not signalled her intention of stepping down?

Clearly, both major political “sides” (the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor) know well enough, I guess, the legislation and the legal grounds for a serving police officer to be able to stand for Local Government as well as the conditions that may pertain to this dual responsibility. But the problem for these parties now is that the electors, in general, do not know because they have not been adequately informed.

The recent Council election was held with this uncertainty in evidence among electors. Many were, in fact, uncertain about the legitimacy of a serving police officer’s candidacy. It may turn out to be legal – the VEC did endorse his candidature after all – but some are convinced that a serious error or series of errors has been made in order to make this possible.

Despite the Candidate, who is now Mayor and President of the Bellarine Liberal Party, saying that he is not a politician – which as we have said is a statement that will be very difficult to justify – the matter is indeed a public and political one. It needs to be resolved publicly and politically. I have told him that if I were to talk with him to explain the kinds of issues that I have raised here, it would have to be face-to-face with at least one other person present. And it is not going to be resolved merely by his statement that he has at all times acted in good faith.

It is now indeed a sticky mess and it has not been made any easier by the fact that the Council has voted to make him the Mayor, even with the hats he was already wearing before the opportunistic and over-reaching Liberal Party appointment was announced. Will not that Council decision now have to be revisited? It should be.

It will interesting to see if the Liberal Party is capable of understanding how it has contributed to this sticky political mess. It is a problem not just for the Borough Council, and for the compromised position of the Liberal Party but a problem for Borough electors and we anticipate this having an impact upon the manner in which citizens across the region understand party politics from here on.

It certainly suggests that the kind of political mayhem that has brought a completely unsuitable person to become President-elect in the USA, which we, in this country, have been quick to condemn, is closer to our front doorstep than we might have thought.





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