Thursday, September 11, 2014

Left, centre, right - Hobart City Council has it all

Summary: the entry of overt politics into Hobart City Council
Once was, local government was a community service, something the patriarchs did to keep the local community well organised and trouble-makers in line.  Look at the origins of the word "aldermen":
n. Old English aldormonn (Mercian), ealdormann (West Saxon) "ruler, prince, chief; chief officer of a shire," from aldor, ealder "patriarch" (comparative of ald "old;" see old ) + monn, mann "man" (see man (n.)). A relic of the days when the elders were automatically in charge of the clan or tribe, but already in Old English used for king's viceroys, regardless of age. The word yielded in Old English to eorl, and after the Norman Conquest to count (n.). Meaning "headman of a guild" (early 12c.) passed to "magistrate of a city" (c.1200) as the guilds became identified with municipal government.  (with thanks to
No women present in that definition, and it took a long time for women to actually get the vote.  We got it in Tasmania by accident - some women began to own property around the turn of the century and therefore came under the definition of householder in the old local government acts - but it still took a while for women to get elected, let alone to positions of Deputy or Mayor.
Renters had the same problems, and if it wasn't for some very determined community urban activists in the 1980s, and a shift away from the "Town Clerk" of the day managing elections to the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, not everyone would get a vote.  Today we're all on the Electoral Role for all tiers of government, once we register.
Getting elected to Council for people such as me was the result of some very hard work by a lot of community activists.  Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Tasmania was changing away from a somewhat still-colonialist class-based society into something a tad more egalitarian, albeit money still privileging policy.  Those of you who marched for Lake Pedder, the Franklin and Farmhouse Creek and supported alternative politics at the State and Federal level will remember. 
The younger readers seem to think it's the norm for everyone to have a vote, for women to choose careers and education, for anyone to run for political office.  Democracy is a hard-fought for right and it always needs defending from the more laisser-faires. 
But wasn't that long ago that local government in Tasmania was dominated by what the post-modernists would call "dead white males", (and that description in no way detracts from their achievements, they were just the dominant group) and to have the Chamber of Commerce vote with membership of either the Athenaeum or Tasmanian Club was to ensure election. 
Local government in Tasmania was dominated by a set of conventions and values of the kind that K.R. von Stiegliz eulogised in his A History of Local Government in Tasmania (Telegraph Printery: 1958, p. 241):
Most councillors are proud of the fact that they are not paid for their services, being able to look on it as an honour to serve their country in that way. Some of them refused to accept travelling allowances, even when they have been put to great expense in covering long distances. Wardens also and other Justices of the Peace give whole days of their time to work on the Bench with no form of emolument, and with the likelihood of becoming extremely unpopular among the local citizens who have appeared before them and suffered for their misdeeds.
The feeling between local councils and the government is almost invariably very friendly and co-operative. Political matters are not discussed at the council table and it may truly be said that there is no political bias whatever in Council affairs. If such an attempt were made, the councillor who introduced the subject would be promptly silenced.
In the time I've been involved with local government there has been a critical shift in attitudes.  Once elected to Hobart, I spoke strongly against the State Government's attitudes on local government reform.  Various of the older Aldermen castigated me at the Council table for speaking out about the behaviour of the then-Premier, Jim Bacon MHA, towards local government generally and Hobart City Council in particular. 
It didn't take long after this for attitudes to change - I seem to remember the tide changing to one of purple outrage as the Aldermen were called into the Cabinet office one afternoon and told the Labor Government was taking over the area governed by the Sullivan's Cove Planning Scheme and out of the Hobart Aldermen's hands for a period of some years.  Apparently the press release had already gone out, which demonstrated the low level of respect.  (Labor's plan was to get it developed a.k.a. Melbourne Docklands, but the lack of leadership at the State level once Jim Bacon was gone ensured it spent around $7M fiddling around with competitions, expensive experts and the only noteable changes being to the Signs Schedule, in my memory.  When we finally got it back, little had been achieved and a lot of opportunity was lost as Australia headed back into recession.)
The emergence of the Greens Party into local government was the next high tide that eroded the old values of never discussing politics.  Greens Party Aldermen benefitted from Greens in the State Parliament and they have since made full use of local government as the launch pad to State Parliament and beyond.  (That is not to say other local government members haven't done the same, it's just that they have rarely done so in the past by identifying with a political group - the current crop are now less cryptic in their political allegiances.  The actions of LGAT president Mayor Barry Easther in the recent Rosevears Upper House election is a fine example of partisanship.) 
Currently there are three Greens on Hobart City Council, although the change to all in-all out this election will test the level of political support in the community.  As an election is imminent, I'm not allowed to use the names of other Candidates without their permission so, on this point, I'll speak generally.
Emerging into the noughties, Hobart City Council aldermen were three-quarters somewhere from centre to right in politics with around three to four independent community association-based Aldermen.  The apogee was the period of election of Alderman Rob Valentine to Lord Mayor and the re-election of Aldermen Pru Bonham, and then myself after her resignation from Council, to the Deputy Lord Mayor position. 
(Don’t assume however that voting blocs exist – it’s a finer grain issue as on some matters, there are surprising alliances that disappear on the next vote – it’s one of the beauties of local government, that good argument and merit often win over assumed politics.)
In that time, the Greens finally decided that local government was an area worth getting into (when they were Green Independents, there was significant resistance to the idea at the early meetings) and by the tweenies were firmly established around the table with two to three Greens Party Aldermen.
To paraphrase that marvellous political writer and Editor at Large for The Australian, Paul Kelly, at a recent Press Club luncheon address, when asked if the Greens were going the way of the Australian Democrats, he said, no, greens philosophy had entered the global consciousness, and climate change and other issues would guarantee them a place in Australian politics.  As always, Paul Kelly's analysis is spot-on - we've seen all sorts of deals being brokered to get the minority Green vote with some very unusual voting patterns at the Federal level.
It seems that those more right of centre at the local government level have realised this also in the last two years.
That ornament to plain English understanding of electoral systems, Dr Kevin Bonham, has summed this up neatly in his recent blog on voting patterns around the table at Hobart City Council.  See: Hobart City Council Voting Patterns 2011-2014 
The delight of someone such as Kevin is that he provides a sound evidential basis for what has been my gut feeling and observations of Aldermanic behaviours.  Certainly, from where I've been watching around the Council table, there seems to be a large degree of positioning over voting to ensure preference flows.  Scroll down Kevin's article and note the changes in the two graphs.
What Kevin doesn't comment on is the changes in relationships between various of the Aldermen, simply because he hasn't been sitting round watching meetings - he's been off doing really good things in his other speciality, biodiversity.  But, for my sins, I have.  And I won't be at all surprised between now and the end of October to see a number of manifestations in the media and statements around the Council table as candidates differentiate themselves from the sitting Lord Mayor and/or are trying to get Green preference flows in the race for the Lord Mayor's hat and Deputy's gold medallion.
Myself?  I'm an independent, always have been at Hobart City Council and always will be.  And it's pleasing to see that Kevin's analysis bears that out.
Election of Aldermen to Hobart City Council reflects the wishes of those who vote, and our Hare-Clark system ensures a fine-grain result.  From real independents to Greens to closet/ex-ALP and Liberal Party members to fringe party aspirants - Hobart City Council has it all.  Von Stieglitz and his contemporaries would feel very much out of place today. 

Authorised by Eva Ruzicka, 10 Congress Street, South Hobart

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