A Citizens' Democracy is needed
At all levels of Government, people feel disenfranchised. They may not have the solutions, but they sure do know there is a problem.
At the Federal and State levels, democracy is subordinate to Political Party interests. Occasionally, an Independent, or minor party member will be elected, but that always depends on the way the major parties allocate their preferences. Major parties rule! No Independent gets 50% of the vote, or anywhere near that figure. Even under Tasmania's Hare-Clark system, where an individual can be elected with 16.6% of the vote (even after preferences!), no Independent has been elected for 40 years.
Andrew Wilkie's surprise election win in Denison (Federal seat) relied on him getting the preferences of, firstly, the Greens – which then put him ahead of the Liberal candidate – and then, Liberal preferences to lift him above Labor. It is not a formula on which to build a long-term political career.
At the Local Government level, political parties have less overt influence (at least in Tasmania), but the process of election favours the “star” candidate over the more community-minded representative. Celebrity rules! Candidates take every opportunity to get into the media, often in a way that has nothing to do with the office they hold or seek. Worse, elected Councillors use their office to get publicity for matters that are outside their local government brief. Matters are brought before Council that have nothing to do with the administration of their municipal area. Ratepayers must meet the cost of these outside forays. Spurious reasons are proffered, but to most observers, it seems that self interest is the major consideration.
Must it be like this? No.
Political parties will continue to dominate the Federal and State jurisdictions, but their demise is obvious, and a new model of political engagement will emerge. I am not attempting to direct that change. Greater forces than my meagre resources will influence that.
But Local Government is ripe for change, and I have an idea that might be a catalyst. I propose a new way of voting that will reduce the costs of Councils, lower the number of Aldermen, and facilitate the amalgamation of Councils from the current 29 to a workable number. It would also empower people and communities, and return grass-roots democracy into the voting process.
As an aside, I think Tasmania would be well served by three Regional Councils. On the way to that ideal, I would accept nine Councils, based on the major cities and natural water catchment areas. The electoral method I outline below would make those transitions possible without the angst of abolishing the rights of whole communities.
The formula for change is very simple. Give people in small local groups a say in who they want to represent them, and let those people impress both those voters and their similarly elected peers before they are deemed suitable to represent the whole community.
Lets consider Hobart City Council as an example. But the system is equally applicable to Glenorchy, Kingborough, Clarence, or any other Council in Tasmania. There are currently about 36600 people eligible to vote in Hobart. Aldermen are elected by getting their proportional share of the whole electorate. In real terms, since only half the voters bother to cast a ballot, anyone who can muster close to 2000 votes has a very real chance of election. But that number of votes favours the 'celebrity candidate', or the one who can arrange media interest. Ordinary folk, who might have a real contribution to make, simply cannot get 2000 votes. Even if they know that number of people, they still must compete with the celebrity or publicity-seeking candidates. They invariably fail.
But there is a democratic way of overcoming the 'celebrity candidate' problem. Let me outline the simple steps that would define the “Grass-roots Democracy” system.
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Consider a small resident group of 500 or so people – part of a suburb perhaps. It is possible for all of those people to know each other, if they make the effort. They would elect one of their number to be their local representative. This is what now happens in various community groups, whether they be Progress Associations, Residents Groups, Community Associations, Sustainable Living or Landcare Groups. It could even be the local Book Club group. Local people know who works for their local area, whether it be environment, traffic, or heritage issues. These are the people who would put themselves forward as representatives of their area. Since the role is voluntary, as those positions currently are, there is no impost on residents, but it is likely that more people, and more highly qualified people, are likely to come forward to take these positions because the only way to get onto Council would be to be involved at that grass-roots level.
Representative democracy requires that elected people continue to represent their constituents as they rise through larger numbers of constituents. Being elected by 46000 voters poses a problem, because the larger the number of people that they represent, the less chance that they can represent them individually, or even collectively. Aldermen are effectively accountable to no-one.Step 2 overcomes that dilemma.
Each local area representative, representing around 500 people, would meet with other local representatives (as part of their role) for the benefit of the whole community. That could mean that 10 representatives would get together to establish the priorities for a whole suburb (or two). We would then have 10 people looking after the interests of around 5000 people. One of those 10 people would be elected by his/her peers, to represent that larger group.
In the case of Hobart City Council, being elected by 5000 residents would qualify you to be an Alderman. That would mean that 9 Alderman would be elected, a reduction of 3 on the current Council.
Lets look at the Alderman that is elected. S/he has worked in their local mini-community sufficiently to be elected as their (very) local representative. This will encourage more civic-minded people to get involved in their local community activities.
That person, elected by 500 residents, is in most cases, not only committed to their own area, but will have a broader outlook, by virtue of the position they hold in their chosen community group. Presidents and Secretaries of local resident groups take a general interest in the affairs of their neighbouring communities. Issues affecting one group can affect others, and the experience of the groups is shared.
The knowledge they bring to the broader 'suburban' table will be recognised by their peers, and will see one of that number put forward (by their peers) as the preferred representative of their '5000' suburb. The selected person becomes an Alderman. Since this is a paid position, it is likely to be quite hotly contested. Only candidates with impeccable community-interest credentials need apply!
The system should inspire candidates with Aldermanic aspirations to work within their own local communities first. That work will give them credence to pursue their higher aspirations. In fact, it will assist their ambitions, but also satisfy the community interest. Elected Councillors will truly represent their local communities, as well as having a broader perspective of the whole city, and its environs. Is that not what we want of our local government representatives?
Give the “Citizens Democracy” a chance!
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