Voting for the unloved
7 September 2012
Unless you're a land developer, a candidate or a political tragic the NSW local government election this Saturday September 8 will be about as exciting as a strand of used dental floss.
Candidates get excited because they can campaign on what they think are really interesting issues - Sydney city has a candidate campaigning on legal public nudity. And another group calling themselves the Sex Party (they got a run on one of the morning TV shows). Dubbo city has posters all over town imploring citizens to vote for Muppets. Yep, furry puppets. Hilarious. Sydney's Auburn has candidates at pre-polling stations beating down on each other and taking out apprehended violence orders. Not so funny but relatively exciting.
Developers get excited because they back candidates into council so they can get zoning changes done and so they can build large housing estates where no-one wants to live.
Political tragics get excited because they can dwell on the question of why no one is interested in the most important 'grassroots' level of politics in the country.
Why is no-one interested? What is it about local government and local councils that make them so unattractive?
As long as the potholes get repaired and the rubbish gets collected, what else do councils do?
Councils were established universally in the late 19th century to fund roads in outer urban and regional and rural areas.
One might go a long way today to find a council that invests in roads other than the filling in of potholes and patching over of weather-damaged sections.
So why is local government so stupendously boring?
Part of the answer lies in the way councils and councillors communicate. Most of them are not very good at it. They are still locked in to a 19th century mentality where the importance of roads, drainage and the collection of human waste was paramount in the building of towns and cities.
To get a sense of the poor communication take a look at the advertising being created by candidate for Saturday's election. They buy space in their local newspaper. They design an advertisement that has a large mugshot with a few words to describe their goals - words that usually bear no relationship to what happens when they get elected.
Integrity. Transparency. Community. Family. Vision. Experience. Making a Difference.
And they spend enormous sums of money - a number of candidates I know of in regional cities are spending upward of $30,000 on TV advertising, posters, coreflutes, brochures, flyers and newspaper ads. One will get no change from $50,000.
The pay rates for this part-time position - if they are lucky enough to get a quota of votes - vary between $10,000 and $20,000 a year. Who spends $50,000 to get a $20,000 job?
These are things that voters want to know. They need information about the spending habits of candidates. They need to know what qualifies a candidate to act on their behalf beyond 'wanting to make a difference'.
What does the candidate want to make a difference to? Why does nothing change when these candidates who want to make a difference get elected?
Why does the councillor who got elected for a four year term on a single issue want to get re-elected this time even though the original issue has been resolved?
If candidates and elected councillors are afraid to communicate with their wider stakeholders there is little hope for the councils they control to act creatively and innovatively as they drive deeper into the 21st century.
A lack of communication skills means councils cannot build solidarities of interests - the important laminates that engage them with their stakeholders.
Ratepayers may be the primary stakeholders for councils because they provide operating income but neglect of secondary and tertiary stakeholders - children, young adults, students, trainees, non-property-owning retirees - leads to damaging inequity claims.
A large number of the 5 million NSW residents who traipse off to their local primary schools, mechanic's institutes or schools of art this Saturday between 8am and 6pm will stand in line, complain about having their Saturday disrupted by politics, take a handful of how to vote papers from enthusiastic volunteers representing a jamboree of candidates, then stick a tick in the first box and get on with the rest of their lives.
Many will carefully consider their vote - the most important engagement they have with the democracy in which they live - and mark the requisite number of boxes below the line.
Somewhere in between the majority will vote according to their national political interests - for Liberal, Labor or Green candidates and they will follow the party how-to-vote cards with a single number in a box above the line.
Which answers the question of why candidates and councillors don't attempt to communicate.
If you're a Labor candidate at this election, you have disguised the fact as well as you can to avoid any blowback from the state electoral disaster. Advocacy groups such as GetUp will campaign on election day in support of you and young volunteers handing out how to vote flyers will announce to voters that they are not supporting any political party. Bollocks.
If you're a Green candidate you might do the same thing to avoid being aligned with big national issues that don't resonate at local level. You're probably campaigning as an independent.
And if you're a Liberal you might this round have nailed your colours to the mast for the first time in a generation. Not so National candidates in the regions who still campaign as independents.
All up then, the 'grassroots' campaigns being run by local government candidates are about creating images that are opaque, content-free, and diversionary.
No wonder there is no real communication and limited public discourse. Think I might be movin' to Mt Anna soon just to raise me up a crop of dental floss.
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