Who is your Council?
This is the first of series of profiles of each of the people that we have elected as Councillors to serve our interests. The reason I decided to do this is because I found it hard to discover much about these people. It’s reasonable to suppose our Councillors are public spirited, it’s easy to criticise them individually and a group, but it is less easy to work out why they take positions they take and make the decisions they make.
My purpose is not to criticise policies or views or attitudes. Neither is it to criticise the way in which decisions are made or the way in which operational matters are carried out. If criticism is warranted, then it can be done elsewhere. It is simply an attempt to know who these people are, why they are doing what they are doing (essentially in their spare time) and to discover what they stand for.
Hats off to Councillor Pat McGinlay for going first!
A profile of Councillor Pat McGinlay
Pat McGinlay strode across the patio at the Blue Earth café in Bodalla. As we greeted one another I detected a Scottish brogue. I suggested he was a long way from home and he knew immediately what I meant though the Scottish lilt became less discernible as we talked. He arrived in Australia as a boy in 1965. His father was a fitter and turner working in an engineering factory that serviced the Scottish shipyards. British shipyards were in decline by then, some twenty years after the war, and the McGinlays decided that Australia offered better prospects. They were ten pound Poms. Fifty years later the Scottish inflection remains.
McGinlay was heavily influenced in his decision to run for Council by Gabi Harding. A search for Gabi returns a wealth of results and a quick scan of these results confirms that she is a woman with a social conscience; support for same-sex marriage, a proposal for a refugee welcome zone, and a stand against HuntFest. McGinlay was a public servant for many years, although he spent seven years as a learning and development consultant. He has worked for the Australian National Audit Office in Canberra, for the ACT’s Department of Urban Services and then for the Eurobodalla Council where he was an HR professional. He majored in political science at University so he was not unaware of the role of politics in society. “It’s difficult to express personal political views as a public servant,” he told me “so my interest in political activity was belated,” he told me. He describes himself as on the left of politics but he finds the centralised structure of the Labor party does not sit comfortably with him.
“The Greens is a party of the left and it stands for the things that matter to me,” he says. When Gabi Harding said that she would not be standing for re-election last year McGinlay succeeded her as a Greens candidate. “The Greens is not a party of tree-huggers,” he says. He pulls out his election leaflet and points to the four key platforms of the Greens. These are his overriding objectives and he is concise in his summary of them; concern for the environment, ensuring social and economic justice, non-violence, and transparency and trust in Council.
Transparency of decision-making is important to him. “We act as a conduit between our constituency and the bureaucracy,” he said. That means he needs information and that is sometimes hard to come by. This is a perennial challenge for politicians: any public administration has a lot of people creating and gathering a lot of information. Which of this information should the administration include in its monthly reports? The problem for elected representatives is that they do not know what information there is nor, necessarily, what to ask for. There is always a risk of an information vacuum. This is no one’s fault. If the administration provides too much information it is as guilty as if it does not provide enough. The administration is structured in a way that enables it to carry out the day to day operations of the Council. Our Councillors need to know how it works if they are to make a difference. Becoming a Councillor has been a steep learning curve even for McGinlay who has the benefit of having worked for them. “There is an enormous volume of legislation to be across,“ he says “and it’s only now after six months that I am getting to grips with the full extent of what needs to be done.”
His years as a public servant have left him with an understanding of the value of “robust and frank” discussions. “Bureaucracies find it hard to admit mistakes. We need a culture where it is OK to say that you have got something wrong”. This is a practical and sensible approach to most walks of life. Part of transparency is openness. He sees his job as being both to get a window into the administration’s world and to ensure that all the relevant information is provided. He cited as an example the recent announcement by Council that it had “been judged the top council in Australia for customer service general enquiries in a quarterly national benchmarking report.” On the face of it that is a sound achievement but it was McGinlay who raised the question about the cost of this achievement. McGinlay notes that, because he is a former employee of the administration, that he is well-placed to know the important questions to ask and to understand that delivering public value is a trade-off between results, risk and cost.
It is early days for us to be looking for much change. Councillors’ terms run for four years and we are nine months into this term. Of the nine councillors, six are new. Much of the early months are taken up with understanding how the machine works. This is important; on a larger scale, we can see the problems Trump is having because he doesn’t quite understand the Washington machine. That is politics. It is after all the ability to work with the administration but to identify the areas that an operational machine will miss. The Council should be a team that wants to change, that is able to balance potential benefit with risk and that creates a better future for its constituents. That may be difficult when there are the equivalent of some 470 staff and only 8 part-time Councillors but that is not an excuse for inaction. The administration will always have more information than the representatives of the people it serves; that is inevitable. What is not inevitable is that they will get poked and prodded in areas that will bring results. These results are a combination of hard results (value for money from the rates we pay) and soft results (access to amenities, jobs and social justice). As a new and idealistic Councillor, McGinlay’s task is to work out how he can stay true to his ideals while making the trade-offs that will be necessary to deliver tangible results to the electorate.