Illawarra branch campaigns for local government democracy and against corruption

Illawarra branch campaigns for local government democracy and against corruption

The centre of attention for Socialist Alliance Illawarra — as for most political currents in Wollongong — has been the struggle to rewin the right to vote for the town’s city council.

The previous Labor administration, suspended while the Independent Commission Against Corruption investigated their links with developers, would have been thrown out if it had stood at the September 13 local government elections. The solution for the NSW Labor government (then run by Morris Iemma) was to put the council under administration, robbing the electors of the chance to take their revenge on the Labor machine.

But Wollongong didn´t take the decision lying down. A movement to demand the right to vote and an end to corruption sprung up, and Socialist Alliance Illawarra has been deeply involved in it.

For example, nearly 200 people turned out for Wollongong Against Corruption (WAC)’s “Making Community Democracy Work” conference on August 16. It was full of interesting discussion including reports from Jack Mundey, John Hatten (ex-MP for South Coast and legendary anti-corruption fighter), John Mant (ex-ICAC commissioner), Olive Rodwell (legendary community activist) and more.

It was also a fantastic networking opportunity with many community groups present from around the state.

During the “Deepening Community Democracy” workshop, Socialist Alliance Illawarra members Tim Dobson and Geoff Heise swung discussion back to a focus on community mass mobilisation, convincing the group to hit the streets to demand that Wollongong have the right to participate in elections.

Former South Coast Labor Council secretary Paul Matters (one of several central leaders of WAC) backed this up, and when the workshop resolutions were voted on by the whole conference it was unanimously supported to stage a mass rally in Wollongong mall on September 13, when most other councils around the state will be going to the polls.

That success reflected the growing authority Socialist Alliance Illawarra has gained. We have also been right in among the discussion around WAC’s Charter for Ethical and Good Governance, injecting many ideas that people are slowly coming around to, such as including residents’ right to recall their elected representatives, resident-initiated referendums, making the council general manager an elected position etc.

The September 13 march for democracy was very political and spirited, with over 100 marching to demand their right to participate in local council elections.
The crowd included a large Socialist Alliance contingent, quite a few pensioners/retired trade unionists, community activists, some ex-CPA, a smattering of the most radical Greens, and interested new-comers who agreed with the demands.

The smaller than expected turnout needed to be understood because the day was built quite well.

Factors included:

  • Most people in Wollongong fully supported the sacking of councils (80% according to polls) but were unaware of the cancellation of elections (the government is obliged to organise “fresh elections”).
  • The media fully campaigned for the sacking but refuses to explain the calls for immediate elections. Also, the ALP appointed administrators have made some changes to council, and made some good decisions (e.g. reversed unpopular decision to demolish Town Hall), under massive pressure from the community.
  • There’s a strong sentiment to “give the administrators a go”.

These factors impacted on our ability to mobilise people.

There's also the split in the campaign. The South Coast Labor Council has established its own campaign, which refuses collaboration with WAC.

The Greens mobilised their members to other local government areas to campaign in the elections.

In early October, when the ICAC report on Wollongong City Council was released Socialist Alliance Illawarra issued a media release calling for the “complete re-organisation of Wollongong City Council” with “information and decision-making power…placed in the hands of the community, not centralised in the hands of the NSW Planning Department or the Planning Minister.

The release added: “The first and most important thing ICAC should have recommended is the organisation of immediate elections to Wollongong City Council. Beyond that ICAC should have recommended a massive increase in transparency and an opening up of decision making at all levels. ICAC should be recommending that Council be brought under the democratic control of the community.

“All council meetings, including sub-committees and other extraordinary meetings, should be open to public scrutiny to prevent any deals being done behind the scenes with developers and other vested interests. Neighbourhood committees should be immediately re-established.

“Community decision-making via the holding of local referenda if signatures are received from 10% of the population in the Local Government Area should be entrenched, as should councillor accountability to their platform by subjecting them to the right of recall by the community. If signatures are received from 10% of the voters in a ward (or LGA in the case of the mayor), a by-election should be called. There should also be a ban on political donations from property developers.

“However, even more must be done to facilitate community involvement and interest in the governing of our cities, like regular community meetings to debate and decide on important issues that affect the community’s quality of life, such as major development applications and the council budget.”

"The struggle for local council democracy has been an inspiring and very educational experience, from which we in Socialist Alliance Illawarra are certain the whole national organisation can gain.