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Here’s a Story about Jack and Maureen

Opinion By Michael Johnson Here’s a Story about Jack and Maureen

Recently I read a good article regarding the eighteen votes garnered between councillors Maureen Nathan and Jack Tate that somehow propelled them into council. At the time of the last election both would have been delighted with the numbers, but devastated with the result. Neither of them wanted to be councillors and only joined the Liz Innes ticket after being assured that there was absolutely no possibility of them being elected. They would not be required to campaign, attend functions or anything else. Their names, that’s all that’s required. Maureen Nathan was in France for most of, if not all of, the election campaign.

Imagine their chagrin when they got in.

Above: Imagine their chagrin when they got in !!

So how did that happen? Well, it’s all to do with our particularly complicated, open to interpretation and expensive type of election we have had chosen for us.

So how did we end up with such a difficult system? Well, once upon a time, half a dozen elections or so ago, in an outburst of democracy, over a hundred people were sooo pissed off with council that they decided to nominate for the position of councillor and so they did, just like that.

Councils had hereto been relatively small, simple government outposts that had some staff, did some around town stuff and picked up your garbage. However, recently (we’re still back when), council had started to grow at an exponential rate and began to stick its nose in places nobody appreciated….and costs were going through the roof.

So fed up people nominated for council in droves, which was the last thing the big bang style expansionist group of council staff needed in their lives. It’s strange that the natural instinct of our “highly professional” upper echelon of local government was to try to thwart rather than embrace this democratic outburst with joy.

But that’s what they did.

They made it a fiendishly complicated, chillingly bureaucratic procedure with all the associated malevolent penalties and fines for deemed missteps. The forms to fill are monumental in length and incomprehensibility. The reporting, financial declarations and confusing information requirements are fraught. So, all the best to those who think they can just nominate for council and it’s done. It’s not like that anymore, no one bit. It’s not impossible, but you really need to pay attention and you really need to read a lot.

And it doesn’t end at the election either. Win, lose or draw the Australian Electoral Commission is still coming at you years later with forms to fill and declarations to make.

Once upon a time councillors represented areas within the shire called wards….no more. Now they’re elected from votes throughout the shire and no one is responsible for anywhere in particular. It’s a lot more expensive to have to appeal across the entire shire than it is to appeal to the people around you. Even if you have a councillor living near you, he will be as much concerned about how the people on the other side of the shire are going to react, as he is with your idea to make your village a better place.

To further control the field, they brought in the idea of above and below the line which leads us back to Maureen and Jack.

If you can form a big enough group you get to go “above the line” which means that voters just have to put a one for your group and their voting commitments are at an end. If you are below the line voters have to painstakingly number everyone below the line to show how you want your vote distributed should your number one not make the cut.

Above the line the groups determine which way their preferences go and, by putting number one for their group, it means you accede to their wisdom in the matter. More importantly you’re……..outta there. Working on the known wisdom that forcing people to do something doesn’t assure you of their apathy but forcing people to do something complex and giving them an easy alternative as an alternative……. well, you don’t have to be Einstein to work out how this ends.

Getting your group above the line is expensive, complicated and complex and, along with a myriad of parameters and constraints, it’s easy to get lost, which gives a lot of leeway to the referee…. the Australian Electoral Commission.

The idea of groups is if you have a lot of people in your group and they know a lot of people and, so, there is a fair chance that they can bring in hundreds of votes, not enough to get them voted in but, when added to yours, it may be enough to get you in.

At the last council election most of the CAA group were taken out when the Australian Electoral Commission decided that a signatory to the group was not eligible to vote in the shire, despite the fact that she had been eligible to vote in the state election just prior to the council election.

At the other end of the spectrum an incumbent councillor was found to have filled in his form as having no political affiliations when, in fact, he was a still a member of a major political party. The Australian Electoral Commission decided that it was a misunderstanding, and he was allowed to continue.

This is not an argument about who was right and who was wrong. This is a discussion about how the rulings of the Australian Electoral Commission seriously influenced the running and the outcome of the electoral process. It was just coincidental that it seriously knobbled the “reform council” group and gave a free kick to the “everything is just Jim Dandy at council” group.

For those that make it through the process there is, then, the cost involved in getting elected. In a local government election costs are a ratio of money as to mobility. The more you get out and press the flesh, the less you have to spend on just being visible to the ratepayers of the shire. The more functions you attend, the more pubs you go to, the more businesses you meet, the more community activities you attend, the more markets you go to and the more shopping centres you have a stand at, the more forums you attend, the more likely it is that people will know who you are and that you trying to get elected to council. This means you have to be up and about and very mobile because it’s a big shire, with wide-spread towns and not many people. Ok if you have the time to spare, but if you’re a full time worker, owner of a small business, have a family or such like, it means some or all of these things are going to suffer during the course of the election and that has a cost. Lost working time, buying everyone a beer, petrol and of course, loads and loads of time.

Then you have advertising on all the various mediums of media, you need a Facebook presence, you have to buy advertising time and try to find ways to get onto radio and television.

So, the more time you spend on the hustings the less you will need to spend on advertising and, conversely, the less time on the hustings the more you need to spend to raise your profile.

Then there are the hard costs of “how to vote” cards, signage at polling booths and the rest of the paraphernalia that you see when you go to vote. You also need people to man the many far-flung polling booths. And, most importantly, you need to keep meticulous details of all monies received, in particular the particulars of any major donors and all monies spent, on what, where and how and, as you would expect, every invoice. This is where you can really fall foul of the electoral commission and the penalties are draconian. As I may have hinted at, they don’t go out of their way to make you feel welcome to honour your democratic right to represent.

If your goal is to be a councillor, its going cost a minimum of $5,000 just to make up the numbers and anywhere north of $20,000 if you want to give it a red hot go.

All this for a position that pays less than $20,000 per year. Plus the delightful grind of council meetings, council briefings, listening to the concerns of ratepayers and so on and so forth. Plus the added benefits of being totally stood over and intimidated by the executive and staff should you be foolish enough to have alternative beliefs to the executive and staff as to the direction and character of the shire. Sounds a bit harsh?

Well one councillor had the temerity to suggest that council could be more productive and pro-active and spent the rest of his term fighting off conduct unbecoming charges from staff and mercilessly fined at every opportunity by council when he ceased being a councillor. In the last twenty years or so no councillor with a reform agenda has gone up against council and come away unscathed.

Anyone who has attended a council meeting (back before they were virtually done away with) were always taken aback by the pettiness and theatrics of the affair. I imagine there is a lot of chortling happening in the back rooms.

And to be the mayor? $50,000 just to be competitive and well north of that for a better than even chance………. for a job barely worth eighty grand.

All this to be elected a councillor of a shire with scarcely 40,000 people in it.

So if you want to know how Jack and Maureen got elected. They were elected by a system devised by schemers for schemers. This is why the major political parties are starting to sniff around, wherever there is a lot of money there is power, and schemers love both and political parties are apex schemers.

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. Liz Innes and her two, eighteen votes between them colleges were elected on a ‘reform council” platform that was vehemently opposed to establishment councillors such as Lindsay Brown and Rob Pollock who got themselves elected on an “everything is just Jim Dandy” platform.

And now, as we approach another council election, in the present council, for the most part, Councillors Innes, Nathan, Tate, Brown and Pollock have been stanch allies and stanch supporters of a totally unreformed, unaccountable, unrepresentative and unelected executive and staff.

And it doesn’t matter who is elected and who is mayor because, unless you want to have a life of misery and, possibly, end up in jail, this council will continue to do whatever it likes.

If you want to make a difference, look under the line where the non-schemers are.