In the State of Victoria, local democracy is no longer local or particularly democratic. It is the plaything of soft-money politics and corporate control – where even the pretense of truly democratic values are no legally enshrined. It’s kind of like a Lilliputian version of America Votes 2012, where less charismatic versions of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama do battle but which ever candidate wins corporate control is victorious. And so voting closed on Friday October 26 2012 over an election campaign that history is likely to recycle again in four years.
I’ve had people say to me whether this matters at all, given how restricted local councilors are within the Victorian system – a place where a councilor can have a conflict of interest because they have expressed a view on a planning matter (how technocratic can you get?). I would say it matters precisely because the very system of local government we have in Victoria is a critical foundation of the neoliberal state Jeff Kennett built. It’s no accident that Kennett sacked 1600 elected councillors in 1993 while he was privatising everything else. Today there are about 1,000 less councilors. Many of you might think good riddance. We get many dodgy councilors (and some good) who don’t do much and have questionable associations because we have a system designed to get this very outcome, meanwhile property developers get to keep making money through speculation, sitting on vacant land, or building high phallic monuments. And when even this doesn’t serve to make you enough money as a property developer, well you just get your mates in the State Government to step in for you.
Let’s take Melbourne City Council as an example. It’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle – remember him? He was the guy who ordered riot police to use force to evict #OccupyMelbourne from City Square lest our Queen witness some of her subjects daring to exercise democratic rights. Let’s take a quick look at the system that elected him. To be entitled to vote in this rotten borough not only can you be a resident within the city, but an owner of rateable property within the city, or a person who is entitled to vote for a corporation who either owns or occupies rateable property. That’s right in Melbourne corporations have the right to vote. Take that USA, you thought you had corporate control with your unlimited spending during the 2012 Presidential elections. There’s a brutal honesty in this system where capital directly votes on who will give them their planning permits and order around police where the plebs get a bit inconvenient.
Don’t worry, though, good old-fashioned soft money is still at play in the Victorian local council elections. Even in my own suburban borough of Hobsons Bay, the 2012 elections have seen record levels of spending by hopeful candidates (see this article). I think this is because of two seemingly innocent but in reality regressive changes for the 2012 vote. The first is the introduction of larger multi-member Wards, which leads to candidates having to cover much greater ground. The second is postal voting, which means that for the candidate to have a realistic chance of election success, they have to get something into the letter box of each and every home in a ward that approaches the size of a State electorate. Given the size of the City of Melbourne, this combination would mean any candidate who’s primary objective is to win would have to spend an even greater sum. With this it should come as no surprise that Doyle has refused to release any details of his major donors/donations prior to the election.
Local government could be something. It could be a contender for cutting edge policies, change that really makes a benefit to people’s lives. A place where ordinary people have the ability to interact with and exercise real direct power over the State. There is a nexus between local government, corporate power, and civil society. Kennett understood it. Victoria will never be truly democratic until we have an active and functional local government system that is founded upon the ideal of one (actual) person, one (meaningful) vote.