Local Government and Public Justice

There is a long-running and very widespread political viewpoint among Australian citizens that local government has been, is and always should be, above politics. Even to state it like that in its simplest terms, in one sentence, is to begin to see how absurd such a political viewpoint is. As a political view it is simply ridiculous; it is illogical and contradictory. But try arguing against it with neighbours in your Borough or Local Government Authority (LGA) and you will soon find how politically entrenched it is. You might also find that it is more of an aspiration for many people, an ideal that at least at the LGA level political life can find mutual compromise and avoid the cynical self-interest ascribed to State and Federal Governments. Nevertheless as a political view it is politically incoherent.

Coming to terms politically with that political incoherence, however, will require ongoing engagement. And it is not just intellectual, but political. It will mean pointing in a different political direction. If that means people will stop listening, then ways will have to be found to counter those wilfully deaf ears. And it will not be easy. nevertheless, for most citizens LGAs are remote and as riven with similar tensions and arguments that are found at State and Federal levels. Perhaps it is just the inherited complexity of social life these days that prompts so many to avoid thinking about “local politics”. And yet it still will have its everyday impacts upon them from garbage removal to local health services, to Meals on Wheels for the elderly, to planning laws that restrict your neighbour from building a multi-storey townhouse next-door.

We have recently discussed how local politics in the Queenscliffe Borough, in which NJ’s editor lives, has been deeply corrupted and also by political actions that appeal to this a-political viewpoint. And it would seem that those perpetrating this most recent corruption use this a-political viewpoint (Local Government is not about politics) as a cover for what is nothing other than their own political deceit. Queenscliffe has 3,000 voters on its roll and at most 2,500 permanent residents – probably the smallest LGA in Australia, certainly the tiniest in Victoria. Compared with the City of Greater Geelong (currently under administration) which has 250,000 residents it is but 1% of the size of this LGA neighbour. The fact that it is still an LGA entity certainly suggests wheeling and dealing and in future posts we will explore some of the ongoing political and social ambiguities that arise from this. But let us return to the corruption of the electoral process that pertains as at this moment.

I suspect that the person involved who became Mayor, who had been a member of the Liberal Party for 18 months prior to the election but never revealed it during his campaign, simply assumed that since the Liberal Party’s policy with respect to local government is the aforementioned a-political viewpoint, he didn’t have to mention his party affiliation on the hustings. If that is so, it indicates a level of political naïveté not only in the successful candidate but also, most worryingly, among the persons who voted for him. “I am not a politician” he told us; not once but repeatedly. And so he presented himself as someone who aspires to be “above politics”. Then, upon being elected, the body of elected five Councillors convened and since he had a quota (600+/-) from first preferences, they decided he should be the Mayor. They didn’t have to do this, and certainly the LGA election is not meant as a Mayoral election. But they did it and, as it happens, simply compounded the political problem as it has subsequently unravelled.

A week later, the Bellarine Liberal Party announced that this same man, who had just assumed the public office of Mayor, was elected unopposed as President of the Regional Branch of the Liberal Party. The electoral stump speech “I am not a politician!” certainly seemed like it had been a carefully worded diversion keeping the true state of affairs from the electors, at least until they had voted. Shouldn’t the electors have been made aware of this Candidate’s political affiliation before they cast their ballot? But because the election campaign proceeded without this fact being disclosed, the Borough electors had not been properly informed and the integrity of the entire election seems in retrospect to have been compromised.

What the Liberal Party did by appointing him as their President, and what he did in accepting that appointment, was nothing other than delivering a mortal blow to the trust electors in the Queenscliffe Borough could have in their Council. There’s no other political way to see it. Trust, central to our political system’s claim to embody a genuine representative element, has thereby been broken.

The subsequent action of the Liberal Party seemed oblivious to this fact. It certainly casts doubt on the way in which they – the self-proclaimed “movers and shakers” of our Federal polity – had grossly mis-read the political situation. An appeal to the alleged principle that “local government should be above politics” simply compounds the issue. This is deceitful politics that would make Machiavelli blush.

Local sentiment from those who bother to reflect about political life is that the Borough Council has now broken trust with the Borough and has allowed itself to become a de facto sub-committee of the regional branch of the Liberal Party.

What does this story tell us? Before I go on we might note that the said person has since resigned from the Liberal Party Presidency. Why? Was it because as Mayor there might arise a conflict of interest? No. At least that is not why he said he had to resign. The incumbent of the Mayoral Office resigned from the Presidency of the Bellarine Liberal Party because as a Senior Sergeant in the Victoria Police Force (heading up the task force on ice across the Bellarine Peninsula) there is a risk of a conflict of interest with the Liberal Party machine as the State Opposition gears up for the next election with a law and order campaign.

If you are bamboozled by all this, then join the crowd of confused electors across the Bellarine and in particular in the tiny Queenscliffe Borough. The Liberal Party has decided to go all out to attack the sitting Member for Bellarine Electorate, the Police Minister in the State Labor Government! We do not even know whether she will stand again next time around!

What a complete mess! So to return to our question: what does this tell us? There are the obvious questions we have previously asked about this: about the apparent compromise of the police’s code of conduct; about the silence of the Victorian Electoral Commission on the compromised election; and on the fact that a Senior Sergeant in the police force can even run for public office without there being a compromise of the separation of powers between law-making and law-enforcement. Admittedly it also happens elsewhere. So my guess is that this is not just a matter of one LGA, but indicates something that needs to be clarified across the state.

 Moreover, true to their form, the political parties have failed to make any clear statement about this matter. Electors are still waiting to be educated politically about the propriety of a police officers running for and taken up public office when also serving in law enforcement. And the Police Minister, the local member for Bellarine, has not actually gone out of her way to address this issue.

Somehow we will have to make some sense of this deeply political failure. Even in the tiny political community of the Queenscliffe Borough our politics is no better than what is found in larger, more impersonal LGAs. In subsequent posts we will explore other dimensions of the way in which our political community is out of step with its neighbouring political communities. There are ongoing consequences in all areas of our social life and these need to be explored.

And as well as all this we are now confronted by a national political situation in which the political parties themselves have shown that they are up to their necks in crooked dealing. The simple fact that we need to get into our political heads is that our system of public governance is mightily compromised.

How is this political situation to be addressed politically? To ask the question in terms Nurturing Justice has been asking for some time: Is the political party over? A Christian political option, if it is ever to emerge in the Australian polity as more than a Nurturing Justice aspiration, is going to have to deal with that question, root and branch, all the way down, and it will not be able to avoid promoting public justice at the local government level however “local” is configured.

We will continue this discussion next time and extend our discussion of the “constitutional crisis” of the Borough of Queenscliffe by analysis of the crisis in community health care. Stay tuned.

BCW 8 June 2017