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Culture wars engulf our local councils

I’ve talked to a lot of councillors and community groups over the last 5 years.

The constant theme in Local Government from the Communities’ point of view is that Councils have somehow lost their way and don’t align with the expectations of ordinary people.

What many struggle with is the Direction of Councils, indeed according to the Statewide Local Government Survey for 2022, this is the ONE area that ALL councils are struggling with. Other Key areas that continue to perform badly across the sector are “community engagement and lobbying”.

So, what do these topics really mean?

The Direction of Council put simply is “what is your council focused on, in the media for and generally known for pursuing?” Community engagement refers to how the council is consulting with the local community when it comes to making changes that affect large groups of people. Lobbying refers to how effective ordinary residents feel they are and in turn, their councillors are at expressing their community needs and priorities.

In researching for this article, I have also spoken to several ex-Council employees, to better understand the changes in Councils that they have seen (from a staff perspective) in the last 20 or so years.

What is very clear, is that decades ago councils were actually consumer-focused in delivering services and projects to their communities, it was all they were interested in. Whether it be cleaning the streets of retail precincts, mowing the grass, weeding in parks and gardens, upgrading sporting facilities, or opening new or refurbished libraries and pools, Councils were firmly focused on these items. 

There was always strong discussion about the need to expand services over time as the population increased, especially in the inner suburban councils which had enormous population growth and density thrust upon them by the constant weakening of planning laws and frameworks. I make no judgement of how well councils were doing this, but they only seemed to know how to do "local things".


Today, it seems that much has and is changing and the pace is lightning fast. Councillors now regularly push ideology like climate change, sexual identity, gender affirmation, trans activism, free bleeding, sex workshops, welcome-to-country ceremonies, healing ceremonies, moving Australia Day, Nuclear disarmament, giving trees legal rights, and the list goes on. The list is exhaustive and incredibly hard to keep up with.


So why has this political activism surged within our councils? 

Is it because as a society we have demanded this and that most of us really want these items addressed by our local Council?


Whilst there is a younger generation at play, who want us to address every issue, the answer is a resounding NO. 


There is no evidence, not a shred that ordinary residents, ratepayers and businesses are pushing these ideological agendas, rather, it is the Councillor groups that are acting more like political activists than councillors as defined in the Local Government Act 2020.


The role of a Councillor is to make decisions in the best interests of the municipality in which they find themselves. Those decisions are meant to be around planning, infrastructure, services, and value for money for the rates dollar. In any ordinary business, the satisfaction of the customers would be directly linked to the CEO and executive remuneration. Not Councils, not at all.


Instead, many Councillors are tying the performance of the CEO to how well they are supporting and recommending all those ideological items that don’t actually improve the service or infrastructure that growing communities really need.


CEOs are now acutely aware that they are much more a political activist than a traditional CEO.


The problem with this is that the CEO and all Council officers and executives are meant to be always apolitical. Alas, they are not. I hear almost daily from a different Councillor how the actions of staff and especially the CEO and directors have become much more political and biased than ever. Whoever the “ruling faction” of Councillors are in Council, the more the “recommendations” from officers and CEOs will be skewed to the political narrative suitable to that faction.


The further inner city the council, the higher the percentage of left-leaning Councillors, be they greens or left labor. 

This is causing a fundamental shift in the focus and attention of inner Melbourne Councils.

Whilst services like rubbish collection continue to slide, be reduced or be subject to dramatic change, the focus from Head office is firmly on gender identity, trans rights, climate activism and the like. Lets not forget the hugely expensive disaster that is bike lanes.


We are in a battle for the souls and identity of our Councils. A very real fight between the role of a council to provide excellent services, amenities and good governance and an ideological war to spend council resources on minority representation, and controversial issues that really belong in national or state conversations.


For all the cries from CEOs that they simply can’t raise enough revenue to run councils these days, they are sure quiet when Councillors create volumes of new work in these ideological trenches.

Why?

Simply put, CEOs face the most obvious conflict of interest in a broken Council system.

They are employed by the Councillors – and if the majority faction wants to push these agendas, the CEO better lead by example (even if their organisation is imploding with record staff turnover, bullying accusations and dysfunctional departments) or they can easily be replaced by many Council executives who are happy to horse trade all ideologies to be the next CEO.


It’s time to break this nexus before the entire house of cards comes crumbling down.


The Local Government minister needs to firmly define what the role of a Council is (to ensure they are unable to stray into federal and state issues) and it is time for the Councillor group (a politically motivated group) to not have control of the CEO in a manner that really distracts the business of the council. 

Perhaps it’s time for a model where the business of the council is totally subject to full and extensive community consultation. 

Perhaps it would be better for CEOs to have their performance reviews decided by the public.


Given how much the Local Government Act 2020 blocks Councillors in daily operational matters, and ultimately managing the CEO properly, perhaps it's time to hand this over to the community. 

Wouldn’t that be something? 

A community rating and rewarding CEOs who listen to them, and deliver, rather than those that play politics!



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Unknown member
Oct 20, 2022

Its high time council went back to basic care of ratepayers. The waste is a disgrace. Most score extremely low on customer care surveys.

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