People regularly express concern about the way they are governed but in Australia there is a noticable decline in trust of government and other institutions.
It seems that many vested interests have become very successful at influencing governments to make decisions which yield private benefits rather than being in the public interest.
But ordinary citizens can improve the way governments work by getting just a little more involved in what’s going on.
Is representative democracy working?
Our political system is built on representative government. Put simply, every four years we elect people by a preferential majority who we collectively believe reflect our values and best interests. We then empower and trust these people to make decisions on our behalf that should reflect these values and interests.
But how do we measure these decisions? What constitutes a good decision? In this multi-layered world there is never one perfect decision. All decisions come with compromises, limitations and even lost opportunities, just to name a few factors.
Redlands2030 Inc has questioned many of the decisions of the current and immediate past Redland City Council. Overall these concerns relate to how we are being governed.
Governing in the public interest
Queensland’s Local Government Act makes it clear that decision-making (by Councillors) must be the public interest. But what is the public interest?
It’s not the voters enrolled in a particular councillor’s division. Its not the voters right across the city.
The public interest includes people who don’t even vote for example people under 18, people in adjoining council areas and people not on the electoral roll such as tourists, students and visitors.
What is good governance?
Good governance for local government has been defined to include:
- Good governance is accountable. Local government has an obligation to report, explain and be answerable for the consequences of decisions it has made on behalf of the community it represents.
- Good governance is transparent. People should be able to follow and understand the decision-making process so they can clearly see how and why a decision was made. What information, advice and consultation council considered and which legislative requirements (when relevant) council followed.
- Good governance follows the rule of law. This means that decisions are consistent with relevant legislation or common law and are within the powers of council.
- Good governance is responsive. Local government should always try to serve the needs of the entire community while balancing competing interests in a timely, appropriate and responsive manner.
- Good governance is equitable and inclusive. A community’s wellbeing results from all of its members feeling their interests have been considered by council in the decision-making process. This means that all groups, particularly the most vulnerable, should have opportunities to participate in the process. Recent research resulting in, the book, “The Game of Mates” illustrates the myriad weaknesses in the “system”
- Good governance is effective and efficient. Local government should implement decisions and follow processes that make the best use of the available people, resources and time to ensure the best possible results for their community.
- Good governance is participatory. Anyone affected by or interested in a decision should have the opportunity to participate in the process for making that decision.
Redland City Council governance shortfalls
There are some areas where Redlands2030 considers that our local Council has fallen short in recent years.
- Transparency. A culture has evolved in Redland City Council where major decisions are made regularly behind closed doors at non-public meetings often described as workshops. These decisions then get rubber stamped at public meetings.
- Accountability. While some things may be outside Council’s control, there many areas where the Council has failed. The steady decline of the Redlands’ koala population is one such issue and increasing traffic congestion with no fix apparent is another.
- Participation. A progressive organisation would look beyond minimum statutory obligations and try to engage its community in decision making. The lack of an open community discussion about the new City Plan at the early “statement of proposal stage” resulted in layers of poor decision making. The Council talked about having community juries or panels to help with making decisions, before the last local government election. Since the election this idea has been binned.
- Equity and inclusion. Government should be looking out for those who are disadvantaged and/or disenfranchised. In Redlands the only group that Council formally engages with on a regular basis are large property developers.
Improving the governance
What can we do to fix the City’s governance shortfalls?
Well the more scrutiny and feedback the Council gets the better it will behave.
Most Redland City councillors are accessible to their constituents by phone or email. some engage actively on Facebook and many of them can be met at community activities. So there are plenty of opportunities to discuss with councillors not just the decisions that they are making but also the way that these decisions are arrived at.
If you don’t think that the councillor for your division would adequately deal with your concern you can contact another councillor – they all have city wide responsibility.
Watch what happens at meetings (the ones held in public)
Public council meetings give residents an opportunity to watch councillors debate a few issues (the ones that havn’t been decided behind closed doors) so you can form a view about how capable they are and whose interests they seem to be most concerned about.
A full public gallery tends to keep councillors on their toes and residents have an opportunity to make a short speech to councillors during the public participation section of each general meeting. If you are unable to attend council meetings you can find out what happened by watching a video recording.
Participate in public consultation activities
From time to time Council engages in public consultation. While it often appears to be a ‘tick and flick’ exercise, the community should make the most of these opportunities to have a say.
Issues that the Council is currently consulting on include:
- Coastal adaptation
- Draft Planning Scheme Policies
- Cleveland Aquatic Centre upgrade
- Local Law amendments
Petitions, complaints and Right to Information
Another way to have a say is by raising and submitting a petition to the Council. You only need ten signatures to have your petition considered, but there is a particular format that the Council wants petitions to comply with.
Under Queensland law people are supposed to have access to government information, except where some exemptions apply. In some circumstances the information about actions of the Council e.g. emails, minutes of meetings and other documents can be obtained by lodging a Right to Information request.
If there are concerns about the behaviour, actions or inactions of councillors and/or Councils staff you can submit a complaint. The Local Government Act sets out rules for complaints to be assessed. More information about lodging complaints is available here.
It’s possible that referral to an external agency may be necessary. Examples of such agencies include:
Another institution that can act to improve local governance is the media. Issues or events can be brought to the attention of:
- The Redland City Bulletin – contact email@example.com or phone 07 3826 8200
- Redlands2030 – contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Ultimately people get the government they deserve and if you want good government you may have to do just a bit more than vote every four years.
Redlands2030 – 3 May 2017