Australia: ‘People are capable of running society themselves’-- socialist councillor Sue Bolton

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April 23, 2015 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton spoke to Dave Holmes about her work as an elected socialist local councillor in Moreland, a municipality in Melbourne, Australia.

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You were elected to the Moreland City Council for Socialist Alliance in October 2012. Many of the themes and issues raised in your campaign struck a chord with a wide range of people. There was also a fair bit of accident and luck: you headed up a ballot with 24 names on it and the ALP ticket was split.

There were two main reasons why I was elected. One was that our campaign theme, “community need not developer greed”, struck a chord with residents who didn’t know either Socialist Alliance or me because many residents are directly effected by developer greed.

The second reason we got elected is that a lot of people know us from various campaigns: trade union campaigns and picket lines; from the climate movement where I helped organise the first climate emergency rally in 2004 along with other members of Socialist Alliance; from the campaign in support of refugees; and some sections of the Muslim and Middle-Eastern communities who know us because of our work in support of Palestine and in support of the uprising in Egypt against Mubarak in early 2011.

All these issues contributed to our election victory because it meant there were quite a lot of progressive-minded people who knew us. Being on the top of the ballot assisted but if those other two factors had not existed we would not have been elected.

Your election win generated a lot of enthusiasm from a wide range of people. Did that surprise you?

It didn’t surprise me that there was a lot of enthusiasm. What was interesting was the range of people who were so enthused about our election victory. There were quite a few anarchists who object to voting who were extremely enthusiastic about our win. And there were a lot of people who we hadn’t had contact with who were coming up to me at rallies to congratulate me. They saw our election as a validation of their left-wing views, that it is possible for left-wing, progressive views to get a hearing from a broad range of people.

I remember your acceptance speech at the Coburg Town Hall. It was very different from the others that were made. The others were generally bland; you raised some serious issues but in a non-confrontational way. What themes did you raise there?

I raised the themes of “community need not developer greed” and “people before profit” as the guiding principle of our approach to council issues and also our opposition to outsourcing and privatisation.

What is the political makeup of the current council?

There are 11 councillors. In addition to me, there are two Greens; one Liberal Party; one Democratic Labor Party-aligned independent, a Labor Party-leaning independent; and then the rest are Labor Party. Of the five Labor all but one are from the right faction, mostly former student politicians.

You’ve now had two years experience of the council. How does it actually work? Can a principled left-winger actually do any good or do you get just get sucked in and marginalised?

Normally we see the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state, that is, the police, on picket lines and at demonstrations. In the council, I see the other side of the capitalist state — the unelected bureaucracy.

Within the bureaucracy there are ordinary rank-and-file workers and others who are seeking to climb the ladder. In order to climb the ladder, they absorb what is considered a "realistic" political and economic framework, which is neoliberalism.

Among the councillors, very few question the prevailing neoliberal economic framework. They accept outsourcing and council partnerships with business as the only realistic policy. When particular proposals are put to council, it doesn’t appear they are idelogical. The whole ideology is put forward in such a practical way that it doesn’t seem like an ideological thing, it seems like a cost-saving thing, but actually there is a huge amount of ideology there.

As a socialist, you have to be very conscious because it’s very easy to get sucked in and support things which might be against the policy positions that you have stood on. This is especially the case when proposals are put which include positive and negative things in a package.

Also, when it comes to progressive social or environmental issues or community consultation or community participation, council is very keen on tokenism.

That being said, it is possible to do things on council, and there are a lot of issues on which I might be the only vote or only one of two votes.

There are two factions on council which are mainly apparent when the new mayor is being elected. One faction involves all the Labor Party councillors and the Labor-leaning independent. The other faction involves the Greens, the Liberal Party councillor and the DLP-aligned councillor.

It doesn’t mean they vote with each other on every single issue, but on issues such as who is going to be mayor, and some policy issues, the factions vote together. I have kept clear of both factions.

The Greens and the Liberal Party? That seems very odd.

I think the Greens have made a big mistake in caucusing on any issue with the DLP-aligned and Liberal Party councillors. They would see it as trying to break the Labor stranglehold on the council. But caucusing with conservative forces on any issue can draw you into voting conservatively on other issues.

This caucus initiated a new and restrictive meeting procedure that the ALP enthusiastically supported, with the exception of one more independent Labor councillor.

Can you say more about this new meeting procedure?

All over the country, conservative forces and other levels of government have been attacking the ability of councillors to put forward independent initiatives. The reason for this is that residents have more access to councillors than MPs. This makes local councillors more susceptible to pressure than federal or state MPs.

Every time you trim the power of councillors it basically means you’re leaving the unelected council officers in control.

The previous Moreland council meeting procedure enabled councillors to be more responsive to the community by allowing councillors to move a resolution under councillor items at a council meeting after notifying other councillors that day.

The new meeting procedure doesn’t allow councillors to do this. Now, councillors have to lodge a notice of motion 10½ days before the council meeting, which can be re-written by council staff. The only other option is that councillors can move a general business item on the day of the council meeting, but it is not allowed to propose any action other than calling for a council officers’ report on an issue.

Given that residents can have issues which crop up the day before or on the day of a council meeting, the new meeting procedure prevents councillors from resolving issues swiftly because councillors can only call for a report at the next monthly council meeting.

I made full use of the councillor items agenda item whereas several other councillors rarely raised anything under "council items" other than to send a thank-you letter to some politician for time served.

Some things I’ve moved under councillor items include: Getting council to investigate setting up refuges to deal with extreme heat; the legal action against the Victorian state government over the East-West Link [a large motorway development]; getting the council to buy back the [Ballerrt Mooroop] Aboriginal school site in Glenroy for the Aboriginal and wider community.

Under the new meeting procedure, the Moreland council would have been prevented from taking legal action against the state government over the East West Link because I moved for the council to get a legal opinion through a councillor item.

This new meeting procedure is really undemocratic. Unfortunately, the Greens don’t see it like that at all.

I understand there are some moves afoot to circumscribe question time. Usually there is at least half an hour where residents can raise issues.

At the beginning of council meetings, there is 30 minutes for residents to be able to ask questions. This is a small but important bit of democratic space.

Under the new meeting procedure, there was an attempt to force residents to write out their questions in full. Usually question time is reasonably liberal in the sense that a person can ask a question and make a supporting statement, so this would have been a big shift.

I successfully moved an amendment that residents only had to write down the topic of their question.

This was important. First, there are a lot of residents who don’t speak English as a first language. Second, a lot of residents struggle to deal with bureaucracy and authority or might not be very literate. Third, a lot of people freeze up when faced with this level of engagement with authority.

I have heard that Leichhardt Council in Sydney makes people submit questions online in advance. So there are some horrible examples out there. This leads on to a related matter: I went to some of the early council meetings after you were elected and it seemed to me that some of the new councillors were very deferential to the departmental heads who were sitting just behind the councillors. I understand that there are various things like meals and briefings that I would construe as attempts by the apparatus heads to massage the councillors.

The council has what they call information discussions or briefings, usually twice a month, including the Monday before council meetings. These meetings are closed to the public. They are not compulsory but there are attempts to force councillors to attend.

These meetings usually brief councillors on particular issues and go through the council agenda. Sometimes you can get some useful information out of them but they are also an attempt to get all councillors “on the same page” with the council bureaucracy and also with each other.

These meetings may be useful to council staff to get direction from councillors on what proposals councillors are likely to support.

Some councillors treat these briefings as the real decision-making body and the council meetings as a rubber stamp, refusing to consider any motions moved or arguments put by councillors who haven’t been present at the briefings.

It is a problem that these meetings are closed to the public. In my opinion I don’t see anything that is discussed there that shouldn’t be known to the public. I moved a motion in 2013 to make these meetings public but I couldn’t get a seconder.

Since the Victorian Liberal Party government of the 1990s under Jeff Kennett carried out forced amalgamations of local councils and forced councils to outsource most of their services, there has been an attempt to treat councils as being like a board of directors with the mayor being the equivalent of a CEO. Many of the councillors don’t see themselves as representing residents but as being on a board of directors.

So, to get back to my earlier question: Can a principled left-winger do any good on council?

Despite the array of forces against us, there are some progressive decisions that can be got through council. But usually, you only get those decisions if there is a residents’ campaign.

That means residents taking up petitions, talking to other residents about a particular issue, coming as a group to a council meeting, organising a public meeting of residents.

Not all residents have the time and confidence to do that but when residents do get organised, they can win. It’s the combination of resident activism with a councillor such as me being prepared to take residents’ issues to council that can win.

The resolutions to divest from fossil fuel and support for the campaign against the East West Link were only possible because of the residents’ campaigning.

Another example is that the council cut the climate budget for 2014-15. The climate movement emailed and phoned councillors in protest and organised a protest outside the next council meeting and the budget was restored.

Other issues that I have managed to get through council without any residents’ campaigning are issues that are widely supported in the Moreland community. An example of a motion that I got through was for council to report on the possibility of setting up heat refuges.

There is also the point it would seem to be easier for left-wingers, as distinct from Greens, to get onto council than to get into state or federal parliament. Also, surely, it is a chance for us to demonstrate that we are serious.

This is how the Greens got established. At first, the Greens didn’t necessarily get a bigger vote than the old Democratic Socialist Party. They built themselves through winning local council positions and building a base in the community.

To build an electoral base for the socialist movement you have to engage with local government. You have to think about the practical program you are going to put forward and what are winnable struggles.

It is often said in the trade union movement, when you are a union delegate, that to win respect on the job, you need to pick a little issue (e.g., there’s no water cooler in the factory or office) and try and build a campaign around that and win and use that to prepare workers to struggle on bigger issues.

This approach holds with local government too. You need to be able to demonstrate that you can win struggles.

It is important to engage at this local level. A lot of left parties in Third World countries do this. There you are confronted with huge need and huge levels of poverty and it’s hard for left parties to ignore that and just operate in the theoretical sphere.

While we are on this point Sue, it would seem that there is a tension between getting involved in the here-and-now and local issues, and balancing that off with our general propaganda for a new society.

Some of the other councillors and (and some residents) are opposed to the council taking positions on issues that aren’t seen as local council business. When I tried to move a motion condemning the bombing of Gaza in 2014, the right-wing Labor councillors, the DLP and the Liberal Party were all absolutely outraged and got together to put forward an alternative motion which was completely ridiculous and toothless.

As a socialist, you have to propose that the council takes a position on broader issues. The council doesn’t exist in a bubble; it’s affected by state and federal politics. And the residents are affected by all sorts of issues. For instance, some residents are asylum seekers on bridging visas with no right to vote; we have residents who are homeless; we have residents who are under the watchful eye of ASIO; and so on. So it is important that councils, just as trade unions and churches, take a stand for human rights and justice and against neoliberal policies which affect us at all levels of society.

The two big things for you so far would seem to have been the anti-East-West Link campaign and the campaign against the Coburg Plan. First, let’s discuss the campaign against the East-West Link. What role did you play in this? Socialist councillors played a key role in the two key areas. What does this say?

We would not have won the East West Link campaign if it wasn’t for the role of the two elected socialist councillors in the area. That’s not just blowing our own trumpet. It’s to do with how socialists see social change coming about, not from treating elected parliamentarians as gods to vote on our behalf but from ordinary people in grassroots campaigns and how we see the intersection between elected representatives and the community.

We don’t see social change as just coming from a discussion between elected representatives and taking a vote. We see our role as helping to foment and organise community resistance against various anti-social and environmentally destructive projects.

The campaign started in Yarra, which was an area which was very badly impacted by the East-West Link. Socialist Party councillor Steve Jolly had moved motions for a budget allocation to fund signage and to support a trains-not-toll-roads campaign and Yarra Campaign for Action on Transport.

Steve then used his position to organise a residents’ meeting with the local ALP MP Richard Wynne, Greens MP Adam Bandt and Steve speaking. The Socialist Party used that meeting and Steve’s speech to win support for civil disobedience to stop the East West Link and they started collecting pledges for this (“I pledge to stop the tunnel and take whatever action is necessary”). That was a very important step in the campaign.

Then they initiated the Tunnel Pickets. The pickets were important because they made the public opposition to the East-West Link very visible.

Socialist Alliance then opened a second front in the campaign against the East-West Link. A lot of Moreland residents were active in supporting the pickets. I won Moreland council's support for a public meeting about the East-West Link rather than just sending a letter to the minister.

At the public meeting, we advertised a meeting to set up a grassroots community group in Moreland to campaign against the East-West Link. The group was called MCAT.

The public meeting was so well attended that it demonstrated strong community opposition. I put to council a series of resolutions from the public meeting and won council support for a budget allocation of $40,000 to campaign against the East-West Link. This allowed the council to print 50,000 flyers for MCAT to letterbox for a very successful rally in Brunswick.

MCAT then received council support to print leaflets for letterboxing for a citywide rally on June 12, 2014, organised by a coalition of community groups.

The council printed some signs — mind you the signs were never much to write home about: they didn't produce big yard signs like in Yarra, but much smaller A4 ones. There was also a full-page advertisement in the local Moreland Leader before the March 30 rally. We invited the mayor to welcome the marchers on March 30, which he did.

The March 30 rally was much bigger than people anticipated —  there were 1000-1500 people and it was extremely vibrant. The fact that it was such a success was very important. This indicated that the concern about this project went far beyond the immediate impact area.

The widespread support for the grassroots campaign kept the councillors supporting it, even though reluctantly, and some of my motions only just scraped through.

That all laid the basis for me to move a motion that included investigating legal action against the government after the state government ignored the community consultation and gave the East-West Link the go-ahead.

Yarra Council had legal advice prepared for them but then they rejected taking any action. The legal advice for Moreland Council was pretty much identical to what was prepared for Yarra but the Labor councillors in Moreland saw an opportunity to try and save the seat of Brunswick for the ALP and they supported taking legal action.

Moreland taking legal action put pressure on Yarra Council to join the action and having two councils take legal action forced the Labor Party to come out against the contracts.

From the very beginning the socialist wing of the campaign had argued that one of the key demands needed to be to rip up the contracts so that the Labor Party couldn’t get away with just saying that they were against the tunnel but couldn’t do anything about it if the contracts were signed before the election.

In my opinion we did a good job of winning the campaign to this demand.

There were other wings of the campaign that wanted to do other things, such as either just vote Green or concentrate on marginal seats campaigning. Greens MP Adam Bandt’s office and some of his volunteer base did give some practical support to the tunnel picket campaign and the grassroots campaign by producing an email newsletter; they also organised a couple of rallies but these were heavily Greens-branded affairs. By and large, the Greens as an organisation didn’t build a grassroots campaign.

If it hadn’t been for the socialist organisations using their local council positions, combined with helping to build grassroots opposition, the tunnel pickets, the demand of ripping up the contracts, and getting legal action taken up by the two councils, we would not have defeated the East-West Link.

All of that together, especially the two councils taking legal action, put pressure on other inner-city councils, like Moonee Valley and Darebin. It delegitimised the East-West Link and took it out of being a "nimby" issue for the Collingwood-Clifton Hill residents. It was seen as a bad project for all of Melbourne.

The socialist role was absolutely critical in all that.

Let’s discuss the campaign against inappropriate development, especially against the notorious Coburg Plan. You played a very prominent role in this fight. There have been wins and defeats. The final result seems to be a very bad one. Was it all worth it?

Despite the fact that the Save Coburg campaign lost the campaign against high-rise in central Coburg, the struggle was absolutely worth it. We had to take up this campaign because we stood for election on the slogan of “community need not developer greed”. 

Since the collapse of the Communist Party of Australia, the left hasn’t really been involved in campaigns about urban development, and the Greens have a pro-development viewpoint. Socialist Alliance doesn’t have a formal position on planning and development issues, however we do believe in democracy, residents’ involvement in decisions that effect them and we are opposed to developers being able to ride roughshod over residents.

If we hadn’t backed the residents and helped them organise this campaign, we would have effectively been saying that we think it’s fine for developers to decide on how our cities and communities should be shaped and should look.

And if we are to be honest about our slogan of “people before profit” and if we’re honest about democracy — and that’s a core part of socialism — then we have to be involved in and support campaigns against inappropriate development.

It is true that in some areas you can get right-wing elements in some of the anti-development campaigns. In the eastern suburbs the  Save Our Suburbs movement has some anti-migrant populationists involved. The local federal Labor MP for Wills, Kelvin Thompson, is also a populationist, which leads to a right-wing, anti-migrant dynamic or an anti-new migrant dynamic. However this wasn’t true of the Save Coburg campaign.

The Save Coburg campaign began when one resident (Sally) approached me and asked what did I think about the 10-storey buildings planned for the end of her street. Then she said that she and the residents around her all voted for me in the council elections because of our “community need not developer greed” slogan. I had to be honest and stand up for the residents.

The council plan was a planning amendment to allow the council to convert central Coburg into a mini-CBD with a six-, eight- and 10-storey buildings between Bell Street and Munro Street and from Hudson Street to Rodda Street.

Under this plan the current council carparks would go underground with 10- or eight-storey buildings built on top of them. There would be very little green or open space. This would be very much a concrete and high-rise affair.

The 10-storey buildings would abut buildings which are single storey on the northern side of Bell St. The area which the Bell St. buildings back onto is the old Pentridge village, where the old Pentridge guards used to live. These are all one-storey cottages.

So I got involved. The public consultation period was over Christmas when people are away so no one knew about the council’s plans. The letters notifying residents were also so legalistic that residents didn’t realise the impact of the council’s plans on their lives. This meant that hardly any residents objected.

I suggested to Sally that we organise a meeting of residents to see what people thought. I drafted a leaflet and photocopied it for letterboxing. Sally organised the letterboxing; I did some emailing. We got more than 50 residents to the meeting. People were pissed off; some of the residents who did follow what was happening in their local area said they had no idea this was being planned.

I got a call from a man who said he was a lawyer. He said that even he found the planning documents difficult to get through, let alone someone who’s not trained to read boring legal stuff.

So Save Coburg came into being with a bang and we leafletted hundreds and hundreds of houses and the number of objections went from about 10 to about 250 and there were lots of emails and phone calls complaining to councillors. We fought for and managed to win an extension of the public discussion time.

We had a demonstration outside a council meeting at Coburg and you were the only councillor present. No other councillors associated themselves with the action and then the protest filed into the gallery at the council meeting. There were several other council meetings where there were more than 100 people in the gallery because of this issue.

Save Coburg made a difference and we did bombard the councillors. We forced them to agree to an extension of discussion. We did not succeed in forcing them to agree to a public meeting but they did concede to an information day where people could meet individually with planners. This was not as democratic as a public meeting, where everyone hears the same information and there can be collective discussion.

The campaign also had a big and successful public meeting in the middle of 2013 and then in December the councillors agreed to lower the building heights, to six and eight stories. I still voted against the amended plan because it didn’t go far enough. I put in an alternative motion that didn’t get debated so I had to try to amend the Greens' motion. Bits of the Greens' motion were voted up so there were concessions won.

Then that recommendation went to the planning panel, which is appointed by the state minister and then they came back in October 2014 with a report recommending to go back to the original proposal. I had to fight with the planners to release that to the public: they were going to keep it secret.

I didn’t start that fight quickly enough. I thought we could delay the decision until the December meeting and so we’d have a full month to have residents' discussion. Then I discovered that the proposal would be rammed through at the November meeting, with residents only having a short period to come to grips with it. I fought to have it released and eventually discovered that there was no legal requirement for council to keep it secret.

I managed to force the council planners to release the report. Then I tried to get the decision deferred to a later council meeting to give residents an extra couple of weeks to work out what was being planned. The councillors rejected that, on the vote of the mayor (Meghan Hopper). Council then voted to go with all the recommendations.

Even though all the amendments had been stripped out?

There were four who voted against the planning amendment for Coburg: myself, the two Greens and the ALP councillor Lita Gillies (from the ALP left). The main reason the Greens opposed it was that it also removed some things that the council officers had recommended in the original version. The planning panel made it worse than the original. It stripped the rating from six green star to four green star, it stripped out affordable housing, accessible housing and the minimum size of units requirement. Also, there is no right of residents to object to anything unless they are directly on the interface with the building.

So, after two years of struggle, an appalling result got up.

It is an appalling result. But there was still value in the Save Coburg campaign coming together. There have been a lot of residents’ campaigns in the south of Moreland. Save Coburg is not as solid a group as the Brunswick Residents Network but it starts to put the council on notice that there are residents who are unhappy about what is happening in Coburg and want to do something about it. It awakened an interest among residents in what is happening in their local area.

It was a dreadful decision, there’s no two ways about that. It was a defeat although a couple of small concessions were won. The planning panel recommended that the setbacks from neighbouring houses for the 10-storey buildings on the northern side of Bell Street be bigger than the council was recommending. And the council has accepted this. That meant that 10-storey buildings won’t fit on the northern side of Bell Street.

One other thing that the planning panel didn’t knock back is the slight extra amount of green space that was accepted by the council in December 2013.

There are some people on the left who aren’t very enthusiastic about residents’ opposition to the Coburg Plan and things like that. They say it’s just nimbyism, we need greater housing density to combat urban sprawl, and so on. How do you respond to such criticisms?

People who say that need to look at each anti-development campaign before making blanket statements like that. People need to think about the issues a little more deeply before just dismissing all of these campaigns. My viewpoint is that while we do need increased density to fit people into the city without an ever-expanding city boundary, we don’t want developers to drive that process. We do still want a liveable city.

We have an example of an area where development was driven by developers, and that’s Docklands. Docklands is a ghost city without any heart.

My impression is that some of the people who say, “All this high rise is great”, don’t live in it themselves and want other working-class people to live in high rise while they live in a single-storey dwelling with a vegie garden!

Melbourne planning academic Michael Buxton says that in Barcelona, which is much more dense than Melbourne, there is no building that is higher than five or six stories. You don’t need to have 10-storey or 20-storey buildings for a more dense city.

Europe does have more dense living, people are more used to apartment-style living. But two things I have been told about European apartment-style living is that often there is more green space, more open space around apartment blocks. Generally they’re not skyscrapers.

The reason why a lot of Australians are so anti-development is because of their experience of it — all concrete right up to the boundary fence and tiny units. It is a form of social engineering, there’s no variety. But the unit blocks we’re getting now are not variety; it’s one and two-bedroom units. There are no three-bedroom units for families. They don’t exist.

It’s a form of social engineering. It’s pushing families to the outskirts of the city. The newer flats tend to be smaller than the older-style flats; the older-style unit blocks from the seventies tend to have a little bit of garden, they’re not quite as concrete. Basically, developers are cutting costs as much as they can.

And in terms of environmental and social arguments we have to be careful. At the level of five stories you can still have a relationship with the street. You can look out the window and see the kids playing. Once you go above that you lose any interaction with the street. From the point of view of community, that is an important thing.

Second, once you go above four or five stories, you have to install a lift and the building starts to be environmentally unsustainable. Now that a lot of old factories are going and really big parcels of land are starting to be developed into really big unit blocks, you are now starting to see not only flats just on the edge of buildings where there is a window onto the outside world but flats in the middle of these big buildings where there is no window to the outside world, where there is no natural light, where there is no natural ventilation. And that is very problematic.

My observation of residents’ groups — while it’s true you can have residents’ groups that are very nimbyish and self-centred, and you can have the populationists enter into them and try to turn these groups in a right-wing direction — most of the residents I’ve come across who are protesting over-development are not necessarily against all development per se. They want development that isn’t just jammed in. They want to see the right sorts of development, in the right sorts of places.

We need to take development, most sorts of development, out of the hands of the private developers so that you can genuinely have variety.

There is also a view that if you allow lots of high rise it will automatically create affordable housing. This isn’t true. If it was, the cost of housing would be decreasing. Housing affordability is affected by speculation in the market and high rise leads to more speculation, not less. Most of these units and flats are completely unaffordable for ordinary people.

You only need to look at Docklands to see that. Many of the units in Docklands are unoccupied. Either people can’t afford to live in them or else people who can afford to live in them don’t want to because it’s a very un-community kind of area. It’s a place without a soul. People want much more organic kinds of communities.

Another environmental consideration is that when these developments go up, usually the house that was originally on the site is crunched up, the garden is destroyed as well, which can also mean loss of trees. Of course these are private trees, not public trees, but areas where there are a lot of these housing developments are hotter because there is so much concrete. Usually the only surface that isn’t concrete is some pebbles and a few spikey plants out the front. Basically they are making the suburbs hotter. This also creates a flooding issue. There’s not enough soil to absorb heavy rainfall so you get flash floods.

There need to be laws that force developers to plant trees, for instance, trees with a canopy. There are a range of things that really need to be done to try and prevent these developments being so unsustainable environmentally.

One of the big constraints on councils involves finances. The state governments are kept on a financial leash by the federal government in Canberra, which has the taxing power. Local councils are also kept on a tight leash by the state governments, and they have to operate within the strict limits set by the Local Government Act. The funding arrangements are such that councils are forced to increase rates on residents. Apart from some federal grants, their only other source of income is money from fines and fees. Is there a way around this? What would you envisage?

Local government is also affected by the federal budget. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s cuts in the the federal budget also cut grants to local governments. This is very difficult area. Federal grants to state governments, for instance, to sustain public libraries, I think have been halved. There are a lot of services that are provided at local level by local government  — maternal and child health clinics, home and community care when people can no longer look after themselves (meals on wheels, house cleaning and shopping, etc.), roads and footpaths.

The main means the council has of raising money is rates and fees and charges. There is a lot of pressure to increase rates beyond the Consumer Price Index. Rates aren’t  means tested. A worker or a welfare recipient may have inherited a house, be living in it and then have to pay the same rates as a wealthy neighbour. It’s a very inequitable form of taxation.

Generally, I have voted against raising rates above the level of inflation. Newstart [unemployment welfare payments], for instance, isn’t indexed above the level of inflation. Also a lot of workers have been forced to accept wage increases below the level of inflation in recent times. I think rates should be progressive, set according to income. There is a discount for age pensioners. In 2013, I attempted to move a council resolution for the council to give a discount to all welfare recipients. That didn’t get up mainly because the state government subsidises the concession to pensioners but isn’t willing to do the same for other welfare recipients. Perhaps we should consider a campaign around this issue in the future.

I think Steve Jolly has also generally opposed increasing rates and charges above the level of inflation.

The Greens have taken a different tack. They put forward to council a position that the Municipal Association of Victoria advocated, which criticised the Labor Party for saying that local councils would be banned from increasing rates above the level of inflation. (This is apparently ALP policy.)

Jo Conellan, a former Moreland Greens councillor, argues quite strongly that there is a need to increase rates well above inflation in order for councils to replace their infrastructure, so that it doesn’t fall into disrepair. She says that in NSW local infrastructure is falling into disrepair because councils haven’t been bold enough to increase rates.

There certainly is a strong viewpoint, from the CEO and from certain councillors, that rates should be increased above the level of inflation. The Greens are happy to support rates increases above inflation.

The difficulty is where to get money from. In local government it’s not so obvious that money is being handed out to big business. Moreland’s budget is about $150 million a year. One thing that could be considered is differential rates. Some councils, including Moreland, had started to have a differential rate for gambling venues. This was disallowed by the state government: any money raised could only be spent on anti-gambling schemes (not put into general revenue). There is a differential rate for vacant land (land that developers may have left vacant).

As I understand it, the Local Government Act is a gigantic straitjacket for councils. More generally, we should call for scrapping the rates system.

The work that councils do should be funded directly by the state government. There are some country councils that call for scrapping the rates system; they have a very small rate base and a vast network of roads to maintain.

Socialists have traditionally opposed capitalist budgets, on a federal and state level. They finance the police force, the judicial system that we disagree with, the military and so on. But does that apply when we come down to the municipal level? What is your attitude to the council budget? Have you opposed them all, supported them all, or what?

So far I’ve voted against both of the Moreland budgets (there have been two) since being elected. Under the Local Government Act you’re not allowed to abstain on any vote; you have to vote yes or no or propose to defer.

I’ve voted against both budgets on the basis of opposing rate increases above the level of inflation. I’ve had an input into the budgets. I understand that in the previous council Lambros [Tapinos, ALP right] traditionally voted against the budget.

It is different to the state or federal budgets. There’s no real repressive apparatus — only parking inspectors and some local laws officers, so there is a small policing function in terms of enforcement of local laws (noise, dogs, etc.). Also, there isn’t any obvious support for big business. Although some planning decisions are questionable, such as with the rezoning of the old Bunnings site on Gaffney Street where Coles got kid gloves treatment.

Sam Wainwright in Fremantle argues that if the budget incorporates the results of some significant campaign then he’s voted for them and if the budget has taken a step away from something important that we’ve supported, he has opposed it.

As regards the rates issue, yes, the city does need the money to operate with, but I feel that rate increases above the level of inflation, when rates aren’t related to income and there are only limited concessions (pensioners), can’t be supported.

There was a case reported recently where a tiny decrepit old shack in Richmond sold for $2.5 million. I presume previously someone was just living in it yet it would have been rated on market value. This shows the problem with the rates system. A much more rational system would be to have councils funded directly by the state government.

And at the moment all residents and all ratepayers have a right to vote [in council elections]; this includes owners of businesses and absentee owners (non-resident ratepayers).

There are two Greens on the council. How do you assess their role there?

It’s certainly better having the Greens on council rather than having to deal with wall-to-wall ALP, Liberal Party or DLP. I’ve been able to work with the Greens on some issues, mainly environmental issues.

But the Greens are also limited. They voted for all of my motions around the East-West Link but they never pushed the council to take a stronger campaigning stance on the issue and weren’t involved in helping the grassroots campaign. Their view of council work is limited to the discussions and votes among councillors. They take up the complaints of residents but they don’t see a need to or don’t attempt to help residents campaign against rotten decisions or campaign for particular issues.

They don’t use use their elected positions to help bolster campaigns. I think they see residents' campaigns as being irrelevant to winning an issue on council. They think it’s just a question of the power of argument and persuasion and a voting base and working with the council bureaucracy.

A number of the councillors  — ALP, Greens, Liberal and DLP  — often get the council staff to draft their motions. I never get the council staff to write my resolutions.

The Greens have a very different approach to that of the Socialist Alliance. It’s very similar to the Labor Party approach: just vote for us and we’ll engage in discussion and debate with other politicians and the state apparatus in order to do good things on your behalf.

They don’t have an approach of trying to give residents and people an agency in the process. That’s another reason why on various social issues (LGBTI, anti-racism or whatever) they are very big on the tokenistic approach, the fluffy feel-good statements without action on concrete steps which might address the issue.

The Greens have helped trumpet Moreland as carbon neutral when it isn’t. Moreland’s “carbon neutral” status is based on gas co-generation and carbon offsets. There are some good things which council has done to take action on climate change, but the municipality is certainly not carbon neutral.

What about the rest of the council? What sort of support or collaboration is there?

I have preferred to remain quite separate and independent. On certain issues, especially around climate change, I can work with the Greens. On issues such as outsourcing, privatisation and socially progressive issues I can work with one of the more moderate ALP councillors.

What do you see as the big issues facing the council in 2015 and beyond?

One big issue is climate change and dealing with heat-affected people and working out how to help relieve the stress. I think that is a huge issue going into the future.

I also think the lack of affordable housing for people in the area is a big issue. The council needs to do what it can to try and push for genuinely affordable public housing.

Another big issue is poverty in the community as a result of the neoliberal cuts by the various governments. We’ve got loss of jobs, unemployment, especially in the north of Moreland. We’ve got people suffering on Newstart, which hasn’t been seriously increased in over 20 or 30 years. We’ve also got people on bridging visas living on 89% of Newstart. We’ve got international students and people with particular migration statuses where they are not entitled to any kind of government help at all and who can’t find work. Then there are people on the minimum wage or even below the minimum wage.

There is a perception of Moreland being a white-collar professional area but actually there are two Morelands. There is the white-collar professional Moreland but there is also a working-class or blue-collar Moreland, which is often overlooked by council. So a lot of solutions council looks to in terms of jobs are much more oriented to the white-collar professional sectors rather than the working-class ones.

It’s also important to retain industrial land within the Moreland area so that there is a possibility of getting blue-collar jobs close to home. There would be a lot of workers in Moreland who would work at Ford or in the auto components industry that’s dependent on Ford. This is going to be a huge issue. Those workers won’t be going into some office, they’re not going to become lawyers, they need similar sorts of work to what they had.

I also smell a push in Moreland for more of a user-pays commercialisation approach, especially with the hire of meeting rooms to groups. The argument will be that Moreland has to get money somehow, therefore it needs to charge more for council services.

A question on the workload of a councillors. I am always struck by the massive stack of agenda papers for council meetings. Councillors are paid a very small amount and there is only one monthly meeting. Do you think these arrangements are sustainable?

Actually the amount that councillors are paid at Moreland is much more substantial that at some other councils. It’s currently at $26,000 per year. There are some minimum-wage jobs that pay less than that. So it is feasible to combine a councillor position with a part-time job. Most councillors are full-time workers or have flexible jobs or maybe work three or four days a week.

A lot of councillors on previous councils were staffers (for state and federal MPs) before the Local Government Act banned this after a scandal in the Brimbank council in 2009.

It puts pressure on councillors to just vote through reports. Unless you’ve got personal experience of something or a resident has contacted you, you might not realise that something is a problem.

It would be better if councillors were actually full time and doing the work itself so you don’t have a separation between councillors and the council administration.

One thing makes me feel very positive about the prospects for socialism and humanity. There are lots of issues that come at you all the time when you are elected to one of these positions. You won’t have all of the answers. Residents raise all sorts of issues and a lot of residents have a lot of very good ideas and they put in a lot of research and thought and effort into all sorts of issues.

What this means is that I don’t have to come up with all the answers, Socialist Alliance doesn’t have to have a policy on absolutely everything.

As long as you are guided by the principle of people before profit, anti-privatisation, opposition to outsourcing, you don’t have to have an answer to everything because often residents will find things out, they’ll do the research. Obviously there is politics involved but it gives you faith that people are capable of running society themselves. 

There is some discussion among Victorian councils about more participatory budgeting. There is an experiment at Melbourne City Council and at Darebin. I would like to find out more about the how the socialist movement in Porto Alegre in Brazil did it.

My impression is that the way that participatory budgeting is being put forward in Australia is very tokenistic, especially the one in Melbourne which involved 100 residents being chosen (presumably by the council) to particpate in discussing the budget.

I don’t know exactly how they did it in Darebin but they allocated an amount of money that a pool of residents could decide how it was spent.

But I think a far better kind of thing is done in the Philippines in some of the left-wing barangays, which is equivalent to our local council, where there is a general assembly — and they have to campaign to get everyone to attend and you might have 1000 or 1500 people — and they vote on what to do.

That’s much better than what happens here where the gallery of residents observes what the council is doing. It’s actually a very disconcerting thing where you address your arguments to other councillors in terms of how they should vote but the residents are just observers.

When you do letterboxing in Moreland for various elections you realise how vast and disparate Moreland actually is. There are some 150,000 residents and a many different areas. Moreland was created by Kennett’s shotgun amalgamations in the early 1990s. Do you think such a large council area is compatible with more grassroots democracy?

I was talking with some residents who were saying that the current South Ward, which covers Brunswick south of Albion Street, used to be three wards. This meant there was a much stronger engagement between residents and their local councillor when there were three single-member wards. Now that whole area is a multi-member ward with three councillors.

Different councils in Melbourne have different structures. Some have single-member wards and some have multi-member wards. Multi-member wards with proportional representation are certainly more advantageous to the left than single-member wards.

Sam Wainwright in Fremantle won in a single-member ward but in a more working-class area, and they were able to do a deal with the Greens that the Greens wouldn’t run against him and we wouldn’t run against them. We wouldn’t be able to do anything similar in Moreland.

I suspect that if we had single-member wards it would be hard to get elected against the Labor Party unless you had a huge base of support.

[Authorisation for electoral content by P. Benedek, Suite 1.07, 22-36 Mountain St, Ultimo, NSW, 2007.]


A few comments on Sue's interview:

* The campaign against the East-West Link succeeded because of the good match between the different campaign groups and the different tasks that the movement faced. The movement needed both to get rid of the Liberals and to get the ALP to commit to not building the road. The Public Transport Users Association was focused on marginal seat campaigning and would have had an effect in terms of convincing the public at large that improving public transport was a better use of public money than building the road. This helped Labor and was one of the things (there were many others, but I suspect that public transport was the biggest single issue) that helped it get elected.

While the PTUA's Public Transport Not Traffic campaign was necessary work, it wasn't sufficient. The campaign that Sue discussed (MCAT, YCAT & the Tunnel Pickets) exploited the competition in inner Melbourne between Labor and the Greens. Labor's position was that it didn't want the East-West Link, but its hands would be tied if the contracts were signed before the election. Campaigners were especially suspicious of this position because of the power of well-known supporters of the roads lobby like Tim Pallas, who was Shadow Treasurer. Labor was eventually forced, not long before election day, to come out and say that it wasn't going to build the road. Its change of mind could only have come about with internal polling that showed they were going to lose the whole of inner Melbourne to the Greens if they didn't. The Councils' court case was also useful, because it gave Labor a pretext to use and say it wasn't actually going to break a contract. The campaign of MCAT, YCAT & the Tunnel Pickets was the essential element that created the situation where the East-West Link was electoral poison in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, thus putting the ALP in the position where it had to shift its position.

* Sue's position of supporting increased density, but opposing it being driven by developers is correct. It is absolutely unsustainable for Melbourne to keep expanding outwards - it is one of the least dense cities of a comparable size in the world. Not only does this lead to car dependency, but it also produces social isolation and is incredibly expensive to service with public infrastructure. Letting developers have open slather to build high rises, however, is just as bad. High rise is also unsustainable and also produces social isolation. What is needed is well designed medium density housing. Private developers, however, aren't interested in that - and, if they do build a well designed medium density development, they'd sell it at such a high price that working class people couldn't afford it. There is, therefore, no solution within capitalism for this problem - like so many others.

* Council rates are basically a tax on one form of wealth - real estate. Under capitalism, there will always be people who are asset rich but cash poor, so while there should be mechanisms to cope with this, a tax on wealth isn't something that the Left should oppose. It would be better, though, if rates were levied on the unimproved land value, rather than land + building, because that would punish landbanking and assist in urban consolidation. Finally, how progressive or regressive any individual tax is should be regarded as distinctly secondary to how progressive or regressive the overall tax system is. The one tax that has the greatest regressive effect on the tax system in Australia is the GST, because of its intensely regressive design and the fact that it takes in such a massive amount of money. I think an examination of council rates across Australia would discover that they are mildly progressive overall, though with a highly variable impact.

* In the early 90s, before the council amalgamations, the Left had cleaned out the Right from the Brunswick ALP. Their performance was such a massive improvement over the previous lot that they proceeded to win every one of the 12 single-member wards on Brunswick Council. As a result, they abolished caucus. They were embarrassed about the result, though, and requested the State government to bring in multi-member wards.

In reply to by Ablokeimet (not verified)


Thanks for the thoughtful comments. There is just one comment that I wanted to comment on which is the issue of Council rates and taxes. Capitalist Australia is moving towards more and more regressive taxes (GST & plans to increase the GST), cutting corporate taxes to next to nothing (they haven't achieved this but would like it) and stripping the progressive income tax system of its progressive element by not indexing the tax brackets when workers win wage rises.

Each level of government is cost shifting onto other levels of government. For example, Moreland's libraries used to receive around 70% of funding from the state government and now they only receive around 30% funding from the state government. Now the Victorian government has introduced rate capping at the CPI. This will result in the axing of local council services, the loss of jobs and dilapidated infrastructure. However, council rates are very regressive, especially when we live under a capitalist system which tells people that you can only have housing security if you take out a gigantic mortgage. The council rates don't distinguish between rich and poor.

In reality, the local governments should wage a campaign against the state and federal governments to release adequate funding to cover local government services and infrastructure.