Friday, September 19, 2014

Will old age and treachery always overcome youth and inexperience in getting a seat in local government?


(c) Patrick Cook 1985


Well, not treachery, as such, but old age is an issue.  A cursory glance at the demographics of local government reveals very few people below the age of 45, let alone female or the young, are successful in being elected to local government.  When you next sit with a coffee, download the .pdf versions of 4 census reports from the Local Government Association of Tasmania  The data has been gathered since 2004.  As a comparison, have a quick squiz at the ABS data on the people who make up Tasmania, and look particularly at age, employment, education and gender.

Notice some differences?  Here’s a potted summary:

If you are male, say between 56 and 65 years, a primary producer or in small business, if you live in a council area with less that 10,000 people, if your education tended to stop post-apprenticeship or after high school, if you were born in Australia and spoke English at home, if you are married, and the kids have flown the coop and you’re not yet looking after your parents, if you don’t mind continuously serving a few terms on the Council, and have the time to spend around 20 hours a week on Council matters outside of your other employment and in contact with the public, if your big issues are planning and development and rates and roads, if you are in a service or sporting organisation, then you’re in.  You’re representative of Tasmania’s local government elected members.

So what’s wrong?  The young, the disabled, the unemployed, women, and people with different cultural backgrounds are missing.  With no disrespect intended towards knowledge and experience, the average elected member is not exactly representative.

And I have to ask, where are the younger people?  Is the idea of community service predominantly one shared by folks well into mid-life and wanting to give something back?  I know that isn’t the case – so many young people are serving as volunteers and giving much of their time to social justice, humanitarian and environmental causes.  That gap year is no longer spent on the beaches of Bali for many.

Or is it that our local government institutions and processes, effectively unchanged for hundreds of years, are finally in need of an overhaul if we’re to encourage some more diversity around the Council table? 

Councils are yet to make the transition to webcasting as the norm, to moving council meetings around the municipality, to effectively using social media to communicate better.  It’s taken the best part of ten years with me pushing and shoving for changes for electronic delivery of Council agenda papers, and still, there is cultural resistance.  Just what is the problem with polling the electorate via social media?  We have the technology for safeguards against multiple voting and hacking of the results.  And still, the model is a physical meeting in a hall somewhere where only those able to attend can make it and so be counted as opinion (and we see very few young people at those meetings, I can tell you).

It is time we stopped saying the young people of Hobart are the City’s future, and acknowledged that they are here presently, and we do actually want to keep them here and to nurture their possibilities.  So why not a better interface with local government institutions?

Here’s a radical thought: why not take a percentage of the Council budget that is used for youth and festival programs, and actually hand the decision making for how it is spent on programs over to anyone interested between the ages of 18 and 25.  No elected representatives interfering or over ruling.  And yes, some assistance and guidance, but only from Council officers, and preferably ones in a similar age bracket.

I did suggest that at Budget time to the Council some years back.  The howls of “we’re elected to make the decisions” from the over 45 males was particularly in the majority.  As it actually is.  And so no change.  And given the inventiveness and cultural innovation that comes from being younger, an opportunity was missed to make Hobart more attractive for this age group by this age group. 

Funky.  Vibrant.  Hardly words to describe the current crop of Hobart Aldermen representing Hobart’s citizenry.  In fact, one candidate recently commented local government was boring, the meetings as dull as possible, that he thought it was intentional, to disengage the voters.  Fair point, I thought.  Is the way we do business no longer relevant?  Hobart has committee meetings and then decisions from these go up to Council for ratification.

Here’s another radical thought:  What about giving the Aldermen the ability to electronically vote for issues, and where there is agreement, star those parts of the agenda, and spend our time then purposefully discussing that which we don’t agree on?

Suggested that one also, but again, got slapped down, because the majority wanted to be seen to be making decisions, to the often non-existent public gallery.  It’s not as if people don’t come in when there is something controversial, but the rest of the time, much of the agenda is tick and flick, especially when the meeting stretches to three hours and mental fatigue has set in.  And you know, sometimes a decision has to go through multiple levels of meetings.  It’s at times a criminal waste of people’s lives and I can’t say multiple levels of meetings often adds to the quality of the decision!

We know there is always a lag time once cultural and political change starts to take effect.  It’s slowly changing for women, although still well below a representative sample of population, and it still makes the local news as an exception when a woman makes a play for either Mayor or Deputy.  In the 1990s there were quite a few young people standing for public positions across the tiers of government.  Some succeeded and went on to greater glory.  Yet we’ve still to see young people consistently standing for or elected to local government. 

There hasn’t been any one below the age of 30 in Hobart since Greens Alderman Mat Hines and he didn’t last his whole term either.  But he certainly made it clear that what mattered to his demographic was yet to get on the radar of the older Aldermen.  His concerns were deeply green and people centred.  He saw local government as the policy arena to get some change for how young people were treated in the City.  His values, and how there were to be applied, were very different from the sitting Aldermen.  The look of purple outrage on the face of one Alderman when he commented that he would never likely own property and so didn’t have any interest in local government policy about it, was fascinating.  You’d think he’d uttered some heinous blasphemous curse, given the reaction, and yet, there it was. 

What matters to the young is not the same as matters to the demographic currently in the chairs.  Below 25, and most likely you were renting, footloose and more interested in changing the world one protest at a time.  The young complain that Hobart is a boring place, that it lacks the vibrancy of other cities, that it needs more parties.  Above the age of 25-35 it and the ever time-consuming dance of mortgage, family, superannuation and insurance til you’re dead, matters more.  As also, safe footpaths, shared cycleways and playgrounds.  After all, you’ve probably got a small family by now.

And granted, Council has shifted a great deal in addressing the issues of youth and cultural diversity, with actual policies and programs and a Futures Youth Advisory Committee.  (see )  There is a lot of support given to young people, and I sometimes wonder if those complaining are aware of the limits of what local government can do?

It’s one of those darkly enjoyed political jokes, that old age and treachery will always overcome youth and inexperience.  But if the young don’t engage with local government, find out how different it is to State and Federal government, when none of the 18-25 year olds are around the table when the final budget decisions are made, what urgency will then be given to the changes they want to see implemented in their city?

So here we are.  From 14 -28 October, we’ll all be asked to choose 12 people to represent our city.  And don’t get me wrong.  I’d consider it an honour if people chose me to represent them for another four years in Hobart, because it is a City of many possibilities and opportunities, and that’s what I’m asking to be a part of.  Yet this time, if you decide to fill out the non-compulsory postal ballot paper, have a think about how the whole Council should represent the whole of the City.  Wouldn’t it be good to see more young people and more women, to get more diversity around the table?  And perhaps then, we’ll get less complaints about living in boring old Hobart.


Authorised by Eva Ruzicka, 10 Congress Street, South Hobart.

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