Proportionality and (Local Government) Politics (1)

This post is a continuation of material first raised on the 8th December 2016 “Electoral Mayhem on our Front Doorstep”.

My general reflection on political responsibility has had to confront a strange anomaly. So many of the people I talk to have said, quite openly, that they no longer want to discuss politics – they usually mean by this that they have given up listening to news bulletins or reading the newspapers – and yet at the same time there is this general sense of a growing nationalist political sentiment at home as much as elsewhere around the globe. My concern is with what will happen when some of the root causes of this serious political malaise are laid bear and made public. Does not the act of making the results of this analysis public through this blog (yes this blog too!) simply add fuel to the nationalist fire?

Below readers can find my initial effort to identify an intractable problem that has emerged in the local government of the tiny Queenscliffe Borough where I live. The more I reflect upon the problems that have emerged, the more the ambiguities and contradictions stand out. We seem politically incapable of rejecting political deceit when it is staring us in the face.

I am therefore wondering about how this contribution should be made to properly and justly open up this political problem as it needs to be discussed. This series of posts is oriented by the “principle of proportionality”. I have come to consider this principle even though it is usually referred to as part of arguments setting forth criteria that need to be scrupulously adhered to for the waging of a “just war”. To rephrase the conventional wording of that criterion would read:

   … the principle of proportionality applied to just political debate would mean observing the principle that the costs of exposing deep and complex structural issues do not exceed the good that is intended and that the means employed in argument are consistent with the end being sought.

I shall explain further why I have deferred to this “proportionality principle” as my analysis is unfurled below. But to put the issue succinctly: can a just political exposé of the deceit perpetrated during the last council election (see 8th December blog linked above) and its consequences be set forth which points the way to appropriate resolution?

The serious issues raised in the December 8th post have still not been publicly addressed by the Borough Council. In fact, the Council’s silence on the matter in no way allays concerns of electors that the electoral process has been seriously compromised. The legitimacy of the Council itself is now in doubt. There is a serious, erosion of public trust in the Council, and this is made all the more difficult by the fact that the integrity of local government across the State, if not across the entire nation, is under a serious cloud. And it is more than likely that the confusion that reigns in the minds of electors is also to be found among the Borough’s councillors.

To recap: in the Borough of Queenscliffe election of 2017 the candidate who subsequently received most first preference votes and became Mayor failed to disclose his political affiliation during the election campaign. His political affiliation became evident a week after being sworn in as Mayor when it was revealed that he had been elected as the Chairman of the Bellarine Liberal Party. The announcement of his Chairmanship was in terms of him being the best person to lead the Liberal campaign to challenge and defeat the sitting Labor member at the next election. The fact that the sitting State member of Parliament for this state electorate is also Police Minister adds further complexity to this issue. And we must not avoid mentioning that this person who holds the positions of Mayor and Chairman of the regional Liberal Party is also a senior police officer with the important task of heading up a police task force to investigate the serious drug usage (ice) among the region’s youth. On top of this he is the proprietor of a local restaurant and is regularly seen on site running the operation.

This post, as a follow-up to the previous post, has been provoked by a Council request for submissions on a proposed pay rise for the Mayor. This increase has already been endorsed by the Council.

A local media report on the question of the pay rise deepens the problem faced by Council and the Borough’s electors. The article quotes the Mayor as saying that the pay rise is justified because of his own personal loss of  earnings. The incumbent’s personal financial situation cannot justify the pay rise. His personal loss of earnings from his police work are not actually germane to the issue under discussion: how should a Mayor be justly remunerated? The fact that he has not been able to work in his restaurant and has had to put on staff is likewise a non sequitur. If he did not know about these constraints upon his earning ability before becoming a candidate, let alone after being asked to assume the Mayoral office by the vote of his fellow councillors, then one can justifiably ask whether he has the appropriate level of understanding necessary to properly carry out the demands of the position as it is currently constituted. If a public office needs structural reform the time to say so is before and during an election campaign, not after one has been successful in winning office. There is, among electors the considered view that the Mayoral task requires the incumbent to work at it in a full-time capacity. But our system of local governance is still beholden to a complex and demanding way of operating that assumes it is a part-time job at best, and that the payment for services is actually more like an honorarium than a salary.

But how are electors to respond to such a meeting? Council has effectively put a question mark against its own legitimacy by failing to address the election deceit. Electors – citizens and residents – would be quite within their rights if they refused to attend since the meeting is not being held to discuss the deceit but a matter that is made all the more complex because of the deceit.

This is why such a meeting in this context is highly problematic. The Borough of Queenscliffe is already too tiny to justify more than a part-time Council, let alone a full-time Mayor. The proposed new Mayoral pay-rate is $61,642 a rise of $7000 well above CPI increases. But the underlying assumption here, is that people who are elected to the Council should expect to be able to maintain the wealthy life-style to which they have become accustomed and therefore we have the bland assumption that this Mayor can hold onto and fulfil his Council responsibilities while deriving an income from his restaurant, as well being paid at Senior Officer rates for his work in the police force. And at the back of all this is his Chairmanship of the Bellarine Liberal Party that apparently sees no problem with such conduct of local government affairs.

Moreover, the Liberal Party would seem to endorse the view that it is quite appropriate for its members to refrain to acknowledging their membership of the party when they stand for public office at the Local Government level.

Well then, this gives some context for the ongoing unwillingness of the Council to publicly address the other, more basic problem. To convene a meeting to discuss the Mayor’s salary is simply a further avoidance of the issue. There is every indication that any discussion that focuses on the Mayoral payment will “keep to the topic” and avoid looking carefully at the the erosion in the public trust which this and every other local council requires for effective representative governance. But the problematic facing the Council has everything to do with the conduct of the last election, the conduct of the candidate who received the highest number of first preference votes, and the council’s own election of this person to the Mayoral Office.

Just as the the role of Borough Councillor is different from that of members of the Ice Task Force convened by Victoria Police! And are we to simply allow the role of a Borough Councillor, let alone that of the Mayor, to merge with the Liberal Party’s electoral programme for the next state election?

We here are considering the public conduct of a senior police officer. He did not disclose his political party affiliation in his election campaigning. After being elected it took the public announcement by the Bellarine Liberal Party that he had been appointed its Chairman to alert electors to the fact that he was a member of this political party.

So what did those police senior to this officer in Victoria Police have to say about this? Does this not reflect poorly on the ethical standards that are to be upheld by those entrusted with the State’s law enforcement?

And what are we to say about the Liberal Party’s seeming turning a blind eye to its new Chairman’s failure to disclose his party membership to electors during the election campaign? Have they simply flagged through that as a deceit that was necessary to ensure election? He got away with it and attracted the highest number of first preferences, so is not this the kind of political candidate Liberal Party supports and applauds? Apparently the Liberal Party by its silence on its Chairman public conduct wants the country’s citizens to believe that success, however achieved, is basic to its political philosophy!

Then there is the failure of the other (4) elected Councillors, their unwillingness to object to his election, let alone raising objections to his remaining in the Mayoral office when a week later the Bellarine Liberal Party made its appointment. Does not the Council’s unwillingness to object to this councillor’s election leave electors in doubt as to the legitimacy of the Council itself?

The political question is: how do we NOW raise such questions since to do so is also to call into question

  1. police standards concerned with policemen working two jobs – let alone that of a high-ranking police officer mandated with a crucial public interest issue across the Bellarine i.e. ice usage, let alone him being chairman of a political party and taking aim at the Crown’s Police Minister;

  2. police standards with respect to scrupulous maintenance of public rectitude in the face of an elected councillor who is also a policemen who deceived the electorate;

  3. policy development under the supervision of the Police Minister in the State Parliament (we need public discussion of how this state of affairs in which one public officer is allowed to occupy a variety of public and political responsibilities at the same time in understood by the act of Parliament that governs such public service including the police force);

  4. the failure of other political parties to make good their public standing in order to raise questions about the modus operandi of their Liberal Party opponents;

  5. the Liberal Party’s flagging through such a declension from the high standards of scrupulous rectitude demanded for public office hitherto associated with Alfred Deakin (see attached speech pp.29-31).

  6. the manner in which the Victorian Electoral Commission does its work and oversees such matters and why it has failed to act on the matter that has been public knowledge for months.

  7. the fitness for office of all councillors along with all those employed to advise them.

And all of those questions can be asked and should be asked to avoid any too easy narrowing of blame upon Council for its particular contribution to this erosion of public trust in its work – sure Council has been seriously neglectful of its public trust duty but it is a neglectfulness that functions in a context of public governance and a political context much wider than the Borough of Queenscliffe.

Perhaps it is not just the lack of Council action that has seriously undermined itself but to raise such questions as I have done is to put a serious questions against the future of the Borough of Queenscliffe as an LGA in its own right. Once again the Liberal Party reveals itself as the dogged opponent of genuine and principled public justice, the harbinger of a revolution of self-interest. But then of course, its major Tweedledee opponent is not so far behind and is in constant catch-up mode.

This matter is not going to go away. it will not be easily resolved. The discussion will continue in subsequent posts.

Bruce C Wearne
Point Lonsdale
7.3.17

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