Taking back local government (and our democracy as well)

Image courtesy of http://www.rfahey.org/2009/08/23/increasing-engagement-through-e-participatory-budgeting/

I’ve started to become more involved with my local community over the last couple of years as part of a campaign to ensure the sustainable and appropriate development of a complex of buildings near Point Gellibrand in Williamstown. What has struck about this entire process is the level of power that organised money has in this most immediate level of democracy. It seems there’s one planning law for us poor suckers and another if you have a couple of hundred of million to throw around.

I’ve heard a few people say recently that form follows function – which means if we have a look at the structure of local government in Victoria we can work out what purpose it serves. I live in the City of Hobsons Bay, which has a population of 87, 486. This is a pretty big municipality for which there are a grand total of 7 Councillors – that’s an average of 12, 498 residents per elected local representative. You’d think that would be a full-time job but actually each Councillor receives an annual allowance of $20,705, which means any regular Councillor also needs to hold down another job. Only the Mayor receives the equivalent of a full-time wage, however, the Mayor is not elected by residents but by the other Ward Councillors. I have a problem with this, I think as residents we’re adult enough to have a say over this rather than leaving it to back room deals but that’s a point for another day.

On the other hand, my Council CEO is paid $302,873. It’s the CEO’s role to ‘manage’ a municipality. This is not to denigrate any of the good people actually fulfilling these roles – it’s the structure that I want to focus on. Local government in Victoria has an exceedingly corporatised structure – a structure which by and large serves corporate interests.

We’ll never have true democracy in Australia until residents have a meaningful say in the affairs of their local community.

I’d like to propose a simple idea, an idea whose time is coming at the 2012 local government elections – participatory budgeting. I wish I was brilliant enough to come up with an idea this good but it’s something that has already been tried and tested in South America, North America, Asia, Africa and Europe (i.e. around pretty much the rest of the world).

Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy where the local community actually comes up with the Council’s budget. There’s a lot of different ways this could happen but the process works in a few stages:

(1) Local residents meet and discuss spending priorities, a group of people whether they be elected reps or Council officers are delegated to develop these into specific proposals

(2) With expert assistance the specific spending proposals are worked up into concrete detail

(3) Local residents meet again and vote on which proposals to fund

(4) Council implements the democratic will of its citizens

The allocated amount the community votes on could be anywhere from a small segment of the total budget to the entire thing.

The remarkable thing is that giving people power is actually kind of electorally popular with…well, the people.

At the February 2011 municipal elections in Chicago, ‘alderman’ Joe Moore won his re-election with a staggering 72% of the vote after barely getting over the line in a run-off the election beforehand. The difference; during the last term he introduced participatory budgeting for his ward.

Let’s make the 2012 Council elections relevant – let’s take back our (local) government.

The only thing that doesn’t do it for me is the name ‘participatory budgeting’ – it sounds like some kind of thing groups of young accountants do when nobody else is watching. Does anybody else have any better names for the process? Has anyone ever heard of examples of this process being used in Australia?

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15 thoughts on “Taking back local government (and our democracy as well)

  1. Looking at local government I cant help but think that we would be better served in Australia without one level of government, because with the small responsibilities that the local governments have, no matter what they do they’ll remain something we dont really care about. So how about we think bigger, lets merge state and local governments; move most of the big picture responsibilities to the fedral government (schools hospitals etc) and have the most of their functions at a local level. obviously there are some state specific responsibilities that require a statewide management (police etc) and they can be managed by all the councils centrally. Doijng this will solve the irrelevance of local government and the detachment people feel with state politics

  2. Sounds like a great idea. But why not have a single police force nationally organised along regional/provincial lines?

  3. honestly i dont like it. i like the concept of more accountability for councils but in practice i dont want to have to vote each year on the budget, the council should be able to do this.

    1. Compulsory voting is definitely our democratic duty but there is no reason why the preparatory meetings couldn’t be done differently in a participatory budgeting system.

    1. that’s why it’s an important form of associational democracy – it’s something for marginalised forces to organise around

    1. Since when has closed (read unaccountable) decision making protected the little guy? That would mean the dictator is the ultimate friend of the little guy.

  4. i’m not saying processes should be unnacountable it more my concern is that by opening these channels they will be exploited by those with the time and knowledge of how to do so rather than those who need the support

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