Council more than just the three “Rs”: Expert

By David Schout,

In 2019 the City of Melbourne was criticised for tackling issues beyond its authority, but a politics expert has moved to its defence, arguing the “roads, rates and rubbish” mandate on local government downplays the democratic role it undertakes.

In the past six months, the council has hotly debated state and federal issues such as climate change, Newstart allowances and pill testing, to the frustration of some critics who insisted it stays in its lane.

But Mark Chou, Associate Professor in Politics at Australian Catholic University, said councils had a responsibility to represent their constituents beyond mere services.

“Even if councils have no power to affect policy change, they do through their symbolic action bring these issues to the table for wider debate at the state and federal levels,” he said.

“It does bring these issues into the public domain. And that may be the objective.”

In November, City of Melbourne councillors were split seven to three on the prospect of a pill testing trial at music festivals within the city.

The long debate saw arguments on the ethics of on-site drug tests, but also council’s role in the discussion given the trials were already rejected by the state government and Victoria Police.

Cr Beverley Pinder said the debate belonged “in the chambers of Spring St”, not in Town Hall.

Soon after in December, the council then debated a federal issue in the form of raising the Newstart allowance. 

Again, discussion turned to council’s role in a nationwide debate.

Deputy Mayor Arron Wood said at the time it would be remiss of the council to ignore the topic.

“I think the roads, rates and rubbish thing is something that I absolutely ascribe to. I think that we should really stick to the basics,” he said.

“But the health and wellbeing of our residents is absolutely one of the basics, and indeed local government has many roles in terms of the health and wellbeing of our residents and the people that use our city.” 

In recent years Chou, along with colleague Dr Rachel Busbridge, have researched the role of local councils in ideologically contentious political questions.

In particular, they assessed the City of Yarra’s staunch position in the “change the date” debate regarding Australia Day, where it cancelled the annual citizenship ceremony on January 26, making national headlines.

Chou reinforced that the role of local government was always “tricky,” but said things had changed in recent years.

“Depending on which councillor, which council officer and which resident you ask, I think you’ll get a slightly different take,” he said.

“In the literature, there’s a general perception that traditionally, councils are there to service properties – that old mantra of “roads, rates and rubbish.” But increasingly there’s a shift in mentality and mandate for councils to provide services to people. This underscores that there’s always been a dual function of local government, which is to be a service provider and a vehicle for local democratic governance. I think the issue is quite split.”

In 2018, voter turnout for the City of Melbourne’s Lord Mayor by-election was just 56.61 per cent, compared with a Victorian average of 73.75 per cent recorded in 2016.

Chou said a prevailing notion that the council was a mere service provider contributed to the low turnout.

“In part that’s because of the view that they’re not doing very important things, and they’re just looking at our rubbish and rates. Things that are fine, but not things we want to pay attention to.”

He said addressing pertinent social topics at council level could see engagement – both positive and negative – increase and perhaps with it, more numbers at voting booths.

“When you start engaging in these issues I think there’s more involvement at the local level. Often, it’s to voice their discontent that local governments are getting involved, but it still makes them pay attention and that’s not a bad thing.”

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