"Art is meant to challenge, educate and entertain."
So said then Melbourne City Council lord mayor Robert Doyle in 2012 in attempting to justify such expenditures as a $5,500 grant to two "artists" to stack and unstack piles of bricks in Melbourne's CBD. That and other grants such as $25,000 for a dance of choreographed BMX bike skills were authorised in closed meetings and passed through Council as confidential items, despite protestations by Ratepayer Victoria President Jack Davis that grants should be made public before being finalised. Frankston council got into the high spending act a few years later when it indulged in splashing out $150,000 for eleven public, wood and metal seats, but all this was only small beer compared to a later endeavour by Melbourne's erstwhile lord mayor.
In 2013, the Gillard federal government proposed a referendum to change the constitution to allow Canberra to directly make grants to local councils. This was a controversial issue and Victorian councils, led by lord mayor Doyle, committed two million dollars to the 'yes' cause, believing their councils would benefit from the change. Even though the proposal was subsequently cancelled before donations were made, one wonders what ratepayers thought of their money being offered to a political cause. Whatever financial benefits residents might have gained would merely be eventually paid for by an increase in their federal income taxes, or a loss in benefits elsewhere.
Perhaps being influenced by that creative funding below the border, Sydney's well-known lord mayor, Clover Moore, similarly bilked her unfortunate constituents to finance a political cause in 2017 regarding the gay marriage plebiscite. In a unanimous vote by her council, $100,000 was authorised to spend on banners throughout the city, a cash grant to the Australian Marriage Equality activist group, as well as free advertising in council literature and allowing it (but not its opponents ) to use publicly owned properties to operate from. Of course, all this would be perfectly legitimate if 100% of her constituents supported gay marriage, but somehow, one suspects there still would have been non-supporters, non-supporters who would resent their rates not going towards the municipality, but towards a political cause they disagreed with.
As may not come as a surprise the boards of councils often get sacked for misbehaviour. Last year Queensland's Logan City Council went under administration when the mayor and seven other councillors were charged with corruption.
Currently the NSW Central Coast Council is in the process of being sacked due to, amongst other things, getting the council $89 million in debt and not being able to maintain wages for more than 2,000 employees. Travel over the border to Victoria and three councils, South Gippsland Shire, Casey City and Whittlesea have all been sacked by the state government in only 10 months, the latter having five different CEOs in as many years and spending $500,000 on legal fees for internal disputes.
From the infamous Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall notoriety of New York City in the late 19th century, to the present, council maladministration, if not outright corruption, has too often been co-driver with council governance.
The Solution: Stakeholder Democracy
Unlike two unfortunate constants in life which we all learn to accept, death and taxes, this occasional swamp in our town square might be something we do not have to accept with resignation.
In attempting to ascertain the roots of the problem, one could look at the three government levels together, and note that what significantly makes Local government stand out from Federal and State, is that with it there is a loose connection between those who elect the governing body and the stakeholders who live under it. Practically all municipalities contain a plethora of properties occupied by businesses: individual shops and offices, industrial parks, shopping malls, service stations, sports centres, hotels, theatres, high rise rental apartment buildings, etc., of which none of the owners have voting rights, or rights proportional to their financial investment or the rates they pay.
Might it not be an idea to extend the franchise to property owners in proportion to the stake they have in the community?
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