By David Grace Over the last decades active involvement in politics has declined, and with that decline we have seen increasing cynicism about our political system, and the rise of more populist leaders who exploit the cynicism and sense of powerlessness of many people.
We can make a start to change this at Local Government level, as Local Government has the most immediate impact on all of us. At present, it is the Cinderella of our political system in Australia; not recognised in our Constitution, and its activities dictated by the colonial relics called the State Governments.
Local government is not just “Roads, Rates and Rubbish”. Local Government has an essential role in providing us with an environment that is pleasant to live in, has the services we need in our community, and represents our Community to the other levels of Government so that we do get our fair share of resources, and we are not over-looked.
Local Government can take on these roles because its focus is on the issues and concerns of its local area, rather than the wider focus of State and Commonwealth Governments.
Local Government’s local focus means that residents often have well informed views of Council issues because these issues affect residents directly. The Council can tap into this source of information and knowledge by building structures within the Council that encourages on-going community involvement with these issues. If community members are recognised and valued for the knowledge and expertise that they have, this is highly likely to encourage them to become more involved in other political causes at State and Commonwealth level.
Active community involvement is not easily controlled, can be noisy, and may mean that senior staff do not have the influence they would like over Councillor’s decisions. This can be a challenge to Councillors and senior staff who want a more orderly approach to the business of the Council. Unfortunately, without active participation by community members, local government can lose its focus, and become superfluous to the community it is meant to serve.
If we are to build a Council that does encourage and value community involvement, there needs to be movement both at Council and community level.
At the Council level, we need both Councillors and senior staff who are comfortable with working in the less predictable environment of active community involvement. Senior staff need to have confidence in their own skills and knowledge, so they do not feel uncomfortable working with engaged and committed community members. The senior staff also need to be committed to community engagement so they can provide leadership to other Council staff. Staff may need to be selected who have the skills and temperament needed to work in this environment. Training could be offered to existing staff to develop their skills in working with community members in a co-operative way.
With regard to Councillors, this is where the community will need to take its own initiative to elect Councillors who are committed to real community involvement in Council business and have the skills to follow this through.
The community also has a role to shape how the Council engages with the people it serves. We have many ways now to engage with the Council, councillors, and other community members, including social media, meeting platforms such as Zoom, as well as more traditional ways such as community meetings and public forums at Council meetings. There needs to be discussion about how best to use these channels. This needs to be a joint and on-going discussion between the Council and the community it serves.
If we can build a Council that encourages and values community engagement, this will flow into engagement at other levels of Government. As people realise that they can have real influence over decisions about their local area, it is very likely that community members will develop the confidence to expect to have similar involvement in the wider issues that affect their lives which are decided at State and Commonwealth level.
Coming up: Practical ways to build a community responsive Council.
ALP Eurobodalla Local Government Committee