Wednesday, October 08, 2014

So who should have the right to represent you? And who are you, anyway?

Observant folks au fait with Hobart's General Manager's Roll have observed a sudden increase in names of a less than Anglo-Saxon origin.  I understand the TasElectoral Commission may be investigating allegations of Roll stacking.  Quiet investigation on the side reveals that recruitment amongst the temporary student population by those across the political spectrum could be a cause.  We await the TEC deliberations.
Meantime, today’s ethical conundrum comes courtesy of the State Government’s proposed reforms to the Local Government Act 1993, namely, eligibility for nomination as a Councillor/Alderman.  What a can of worms it has opened up around the table at Hobart’s Strategic Governance Committee!

Currently if you are on the Tasmanian Electoral Commission’s Electoral Roll (own a residence or rent one) or on the General Manager’s Roll (as an owner or occupier, then you are eligible to vote and to stand an elected position (Councillor/Alderman). 

Note that there is no definition of what “occupier” means. 

So if you’re in Hobart for a short time and get yourself enrolled and then leave a month or so after the election, it is quite legal.  And neither under the Act is the General Manager required to enquire as to length of stay, other than to check the person has filled the form correctly, is alive and has had it properly signed off.

Now, no one has really worried about this idea of “occupiers” (and what a loaded word that is now in the context of this debate) but it now appears that significant numbers of people who qualify as “occupiers” have appeared on the Roll and some candidates are now querying this. 

I make no comment on the status of such folks other than I’m just grateful we have a democracy where we don’t get imprisoned for having different points of view from the government. 

But I can’t condone temporary stacking of the Rolls, simply because of a technicality.  It’s not ethical to take advantage of sloppy drafting – it’s not in the spirit of the ideas of local government, fair play and democracy if people are stacking the Rolls for a short term electoral gain.

The current position is that Section 270(1)(a) of the Local Government Act 1993, states that a person is eligible to nominate as a candidate for the office of councillor in respect of a municipal area if the person is enrolled on an electoral roll in respect of the municipal area. 

Section 254(2) of the Local Government Act 1993 says a person, other than a person referred to in Subsection (1), is entitled to be enrolled on the electoral roll kept under Section 258(1) in respect of an electoral area if the person – (a) is an owner or occupier of land in the electoral area.

The draft Bill is now proposing that a person must have their principal place of residence within Tasmania in order to be eligible to nominate as a candidate for the office of councillor.

So if you’re a temporary visitor to Tasmania whose place of permanent residence is elsewhere, you won’t be eligible to vote in local council elections.

Sounds reasonable, or is it?

In chairing a discussion on this at Council’s Strategic Governance Committee, two positions emerged and pretty well split the committee.

One was that if you qualified to be on the TEC’s electoral roll (citizenship requirements, etc), then you had a right to stand for local government.  If you didn’t, then you had no right.  Local government has to be treated as if it were the same as any other tier of government and there should be no variation in eligibility requirements.

The other was that if you qualified to be on the General Manager’s Roll, you should have the right to vote and stand, regardless of whether your principal place of residence was in Tasmania or not.  The point was put that some people did not have Australian citizenship but owned significant property in the city, or ran businesses under various Visa permissions.  As such, these people had a stake in what happened in Hobart (as occupiers), even though Tasmania was not their principle place of residence.  It may also be that citizenship and/or family requirements meant that people could not take on dual citizenship due to the laws of their country of origin.

The argument was put forward that the restriction on eligibility for nomination as Councillor/Alderman to Tasmanian residents was on the basis that the change denoted some permanent connection with the State.

In effect this thinking highlights a few burning issues for Tasmania.

One is population flows and what the effects of mobile populations on cultural and economic change.  Let’s face it, we’re not static populations any more.  Increasingly for Tasmania, as for the rest of the world, our communities are made up of transient populations who have a number of places they call home.  For Tasmania upward of 90% of our visitor populations are what are called “circular migrants”.  Transfers by companies (banking, finance, professional, pharmaceuticals, electronics, consulting, mining) and people undertaking research and training in a host of occupations mean people stay here in both the short, medium and long term, commuting in and out of Tasmania.  The idea of permanent residence is not one that works for them in terms of their economic and educational status.  And it is these people that bring cultural and economic prosperity to the State.  As such, what they do while they are here gives them a stake in the present and future of Tasmania.  Should they be excluded from taking part in the democratic processes that shape our local areas?  Who will represent their concerns about the quality of infrastructure or community programs their rental of property allows them to enjoy?  Or is the idea of belonging and identification with a locality the greater one for qualification – the idea that “you have skin in the game”, to use a well worn phrase?

The second is that of identity and where people today are citizens of the world, rather than a permanent location.  This is a more problematic issue – the idea that we work to attract populations along age and gender cohorts, with the expectation that they will stay, and therefore make the place a permanent residence.  Sorry, mobile capital, airline travel, border permeability, dual or even triple citizenship capacities, and the impact of information communication technologies means the idea of permanency aligned to a set of geophysical location is just no longer valid.  In the twenty first century, we can and do live in the world.  Just where we call home varies – our money home may be in the Cayman Islands or a small vault in Switzerland; our family home may be spread across a range of locations in Australia (seaside apartment on the Gold Coast?), our economic home may be likewise outside of Australia (working for a multinational), and let’s not start with where our Facebook pages, etc are positioned.  If we say permanent Tasmanian, we may well be cutting out the State’s capacity for accessing new ideas, new cultures, new jobs, new identities.  And it is these people who have put a lot of skin in the game in what they contribute to the State.  The counter argument is that you have to have somewhere an allegiance to the idea of a political citizenship based on home.  A Fortress Tasmania idea, in effect, this local government is only for local people.  This is an old idea of local government as locality, as localism.  How valid it is today leads me to the third issue.

The third, and perhaps the most problematic in terms of reform, is the treatment of local government as only being concerned with property, and not a real member of the democracy club that includes State and Federal governments.  And here we run into the issue of whether we should have the General Manager’s Roll or not, and whether some people can have two votes or only one.  The problem of defining “occupier” plus the actions of what appears to be an unusual stacking of the electoral rolls (now under investigation by the Tasmanian Electoral Office) has generated this discussion.  In many ways the idea of local government as democratic has changed over time.  Once was a person’s vote was qualified by amount of property and people could have upwards of seven votes in a municipality.  Once was the Town Clerk also ran the local elections.  Since the 1993 reforms, we now have the Tasmanian Electoral Commission compiling the normal rolls and a person on that roll is granted a vote.  In the twenty first century, if we keep the idea of local government as only being concerned with property, and not community, then a General Manager’s Roll is justified.  But it’s not that simple, and in the eyes of many, no longer democratic.

So, in summary, let’s update the Local Government Act by all means and be clear about what we mean as to eligibility to vote.  But before we do, isn’t it time to have a mature discussion about the status of local government as managing a multicultural community, not just property, and what the roles and responsibilities of eligibility to vote and to stand as a candidate really means?

And is it sensible to have these discussions in the heat of a local government election period with a dog –whistling Federal Government in the background muddying debate and decisions on recommendations to changing the Act being made by outgoing Councillors?


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

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