Local Democracy in Limbo

Originally submitted on November 1 2012 to Swinburne University.

It is a fundamental right and responsibility of every Australian to vote in an election, however for residents of Brimbank City Council this has been stripped away in a growing concern for locals.

Brimbank, north west of Melbourne, was the only local council not to hold elections this past weekend in Melbourne due to the council going into administration in May 2009 because of corruption.

A Victorian Ombudsman report suggested that council members were influenced by non-elected individuals who were either members of State Parliament or had criminal convictions.

The report also labelled the council as “dysfunctional and marked by in-fighting and interpersonal conflicts”.

Despite these allegations local residents say they simply want their right and responsibility of voting back as it is their way to be heard within the community.

“Brimbank should have local elections. I think we should have people speaking up for us,” said elderly resident Nannette Williams.

Local residents last voted in councillors in 2008, however a year later those councillors were replaced by three State Government elected administrators who they feel are not listening to them.

“It is a disgrace. Councillors are a voice for the people and administrators just don’t cut it. You have three people doing the job of many,” said one concerned resident who wished not to be named.

“Elected councillors are more approachable and their doors were always open. Now you only have the chance to talk to the administrators at open council meetings, and they don’t even have many of them.”

Despite these concerns, Brimbank’s Chair of Administrators, Peter Lewinsky, said that this is not the sort of feedback he has received from the community in the past three years.

“We have continued to receive positive feedback from the community in relation to how we engage and consult with residents, as well as on the achievements of Council,” Mr Lewinsky said.

“We have offered more opportunities for two-way conversations with the community via the popular ‘Listening Posts’, ‘Ideas Days’ and new community advisory committees.”

Brimbank is home to over 190 000 residents, making it the second largest municipality in Victoria. The council is split into four wards, and is supposed to have 11 councillors.

The council is now represented by three State Government elected administrators, Mr Lewinsky, Meredith Sussex and Joanne Anderson, the latter two of the three set to be replaced this month.

Swinburne University Senior Research Fellow Scott Ewing said the residents concerns grow from the three administrators replacing 11 supposed to be councillors with a different focus.

“If you are elected you have to be seen talking to the people who have elected you, whereas administrators that’s not clearly their game,” Mr Ewing said.

“They are there to merely do a job for a number of years and then they will be gone.”

Victoria has had a rich history of local government beginning in 1842 with the Town of Melbourne, and now constitutes 79 municipalities. The essence of local government in Australia is to deal with issues directly affecting the community of a council.

Mr Lewinsky conceded that the administration may be viewed as having a different focus but their commitment is focused on those issues in the heartland of Brimbank.

“While some may view our approach to business as having a different focus to what councillors have had in the past, Administrators have made a significant commitment to all matters Brimbank,” Mr Lewinsky said.

“Our broader approach to leading this community with an improved approach to governance and continued emphasis on planning at a district level has resulted in tangible community benefits and been met with positive comment from the community.”

Residents must now wait until March 2015 for a chance to vote with Brimbank being kept under administration due to the State Government’s findings of two government reports.

In May earlier this year the Minister for Local Government Jeanette Powell said that the council is still at risk of further damage.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Minister has reached a decision to extend the period of administration at Brimbank,” said VLGA President Samantha Dunn.

“We now call on the Minister to give an undertaking to the people of Brimbank that the restoration of the elected councillors can be brought forward and ensure the newly appointed administrators achieve the required objectives in a short time frame.”

The decision to extend the administration can be seen as a loss of democracy on a local level for some residents who will not get to vote for almost a decade. However Mr Ewing said that administration is just part of the democratic process.

“In a sense a democratic elected state government has made a decision on a corrupted or what they perceive as a problem at local government,” Ewing said.

“Both reports identified that the premature return to an elected council carries the very real risk of a return to the discredited and damaging practices of the past and the derailing of numerous important projects commenced under Administration,” Ms Powell said.

However her decision was met by disappointment from the Victorian Local Governance Association who lamented the decision back in May.

“In a way it’s actually part of the democratic process as strange as that may seem.”

Despite the view of the State Government doing the right thing, there is still the lack of council elections, which provides an image to the public of democracy.

“I think there is an undermining of peoples democracy to a point. Elections are one way and an easier way to engage in the process and on smaller and local issues,” Mr Ewing said.

A key aspect of democracy is the power of vote, that of which the current Brimbank residents do not have.

With that saying, Brimbank residents, such as resident Santos Koia, just want a chance to vote and a chance to be heard.

Mr Koia said: “We should have to chance to vote because it’s our policy to get a vote and now we can’t get heard.”

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