Joseph Mann

In defence of the 'political' local council

The zoning reform group YIMBY Melbourne posted a response to an article in The Age listing Melbourne’s best paid mayors. The article also points out the comparatively paltry pay and conditions of local councillors, most of whom work only part time despite sharing accountability for council decisions:

Chief executives of Victorian councils are raking in more than half a million dollars a year, while the state’s councillors have received a modest pay rise and may earn as little as $26,368.

Mayors and councillors were given 2.7 per cent and 2.8 per cent pay hikes respectively late last year – below the country’s 3.6 per cent inflation rise – meaning mayors can earn $81,641 to $260,782, and councillors between $26,368 to $60,000.

The lowest-paid Victorian councillors earn only about $8,833.

The YIMBY group argued that this effectively restricts local politics to wealthy people, since no one else could reasonably afford to serve on a local council.

The reality is that councillors are chronically underpaid, making it difficult for young, poor, and busy people to become councillors.

We need to amalgamate local councils and pay councillors a full-time wage!

One group, Yarra Residents Collective, responded as such:

Councillors aren’t overpaid [sic, in the context of opposing the OP they surely mean to say they aren’t underpaid?]. Any councillor doing “25 hours a week” doesn’t understand the role of what a councillor. The only people pushing this is those with political ties such as Yimby Melbourne who seek to politicise councils and make them something they are not.

I’ll leave the debate on councillor pay and conditions to the side for a moment and instead focus on the second sentence of the Residents Collective’s post: The YIMBY group wants to “politicise councils”? “Politicise[d]” is “something they [councils] are not”?

It is quite bizarre to suggest that local councils are not political bodies considering that the word politics, as rendered in the original Greek (Πολιτικά), literally means “the things concerning the polis [city or town]”.

There are perhaps few things that better meet the description of political than local councils.

Councils make decisions which are consequential to peoples’ lives: What can be built where and how, where facilities like parks and sports fields should be built and how much funding they should recieve, where the dump should be and which company’s trucks should bring the garbage to it, what services the council should deliver and how much ratespayers should be charged to pay for them.

Recently, a local council in Sydney attracted national outcry by deciding that books depicting queer families should be removed from their local libraries.

These decisions, as all council decisions, are the selection of one policy from a potentially endless list of alternatives. The block should be zoned RZ1 or RZ2 (maybe even RZ3?). This building should be under a heritage overlay or it should not. The library should open at 9 am instead of 8 am, 7 am, or 6 am. The oval should be mowed monthly, fortnightly, weekly, or not at all.

These decisions - the selection of the preferable alternative - are made by a process of deliberation amongst a group: a group of councillors voting in a council chamber. Councillors have their preferences as to which decisions should be made, as do the constituents who vote for them.

Groups like the Yarra Residents Collective, who appear to view themselves as apolitical, also participate in a political process of advocating for the alternatives they prefer.

A skim of their Twitter feed reveals a whole number of positions they hold on the aesthetics of “sad” playgrounds, to whether councils should move motions stating positions on global issues, to how revenue is raised by the Yarra Council.

Yet, it is also replete with scornful posts directed towards councillors and other Yarra residents for the crime of “pushing their agenda”.

The residents collective doth protest too much, methinks.

Such complaints serve to distract from the actual debates being had. Instead of debating whether a particular policy is preferable to other alternatives, we see specious complaints of ‘agenda pushing’ or vacuous accusations of people being ‘fronts’ or ‘stooges’.

A truly apolitical council would be no council at all. As such, a person engaged in good faith debate on local issues should pay arguments that councils should “stop being political” or are “not political” no mind.