My issue with Local Government

by on 22 October, 2013

Brent Fleeton

Until Saturday, for the past five or so weeks, I spent most late afternoons and early evenings after work walking my local streets letterboxing a small summary of my basic policies along with instructions on how to vote in the 2013 local government election. 

I ran for a Council seat in West Ward in the City of Bayswater. I ran on three simple issues – lower rates, tangible policies to address the crime wave impacting on my local area (I am a recent victim of a home burglary) and streamlining local council planning approvals processes.  

Polling Day was Saturday and there is no denying this fact – I got flogged. I polled a whopping 380 votes out of 5,455 valid votes. 

However, I take three positive outcomes from this campaign: It gave me a better understanding of my local area; it taught me a lot more about the people who helped me and also about those involved in grassroots politics; and more people voted for me than they did for Darren Brown.  

Today, after hearing and reading about how it’s very distressing to some journalists in WA that the voter turnout was historically low and that the answer must be to force people to vote, I got to thinking about this issue of local council voter disengagement.

It didn’t take long for me to conclude that this really isn’t an issue at all, and to force people to vote is a stupid idea.

The more important issue we ought to be discussing at great length (and at much higher levels of government), and even though this never seems to be on the agenda, is how to address the drastic overreach by local governments. 

Don’t get me wrong, this average punter firmly believes state and federal governments in Australia have all drastically overstepped their boundaries. Let’s just focus on Local Government for now.

Did any journalist who contributed to the various columns conveying the collective dismay at the 20-30% turnout stop to consider that the reason that a vast majority of eligible people don’t vote in these elections may be because most common-sense people probably expect that the only matters their local council should be in charge of are lawns, roads and rubbish? 

Most people in my neighbourhood wouldn’t know that the 2013/2014 City of Bayswater Budget totalled spending of around $70million, and consisted of a taxation of local ratepayers of some $34million. This was through a rate increase of almost double that of inflation. During the Budget process, the City issued a press release stating this increase as ‘prudent’. It certainly was interesting rhetoric.

What’s my point? A good question!

When did local governments get the power to turn a small operation charged with the responsibility of fixing our roads, taking care of our local parks and gardens and collecting our garbage into a multi-million dollar ‘tax and spend’ machine, splurging ratepayers funds on hiring sustainability consultants and ‘buzz-word’ doctors, creating make-work programmes in the form of diversity and cultural projects and awarding often ridiculously generous grants for ‘art’ projects? Oh, and please don’t forget the annual contributions local governments pay to groups like WALGA and ALGA. These two lobby groups spent millions of dollars of ratepayers’ funds on a political advertising campaign for something which never occurred, but still won’t give the funds back to ratepayers. Hashtag integrity.

If we must spend money on hiring ‘sustainability’ consultants, I’d like to hire a sustainability consultant in the form of an accountant to first examine the ‘sustainability’ of the alarming rate at which local governments are taxing and spending ratepayer money. 

Unfortunately for those libertarians among us, our governing structure agreed upon at Federation created a monster. There is a solution, one which could possibly appease almost all who are concerned. However, it will be unappealing to those with less-than-solid intestinal fortitude. Local Government (in theory) answers to the State Government and only it can do something about this growing problem. I would like to see a genuine push by the WA Liberal-National Government, by the end of this term, to legislatively cap any future Local Government rate increases to that of CPI. If we can stop the ability for over-taxation, we can slowly stop the ever-expanding purview of local governments. 

This is what I call a ‘sustainable’ approach to local government.

In summary, I know fixing roads, mowing lawns and disposing of garbage costs my local council money, but its purview should end there. Local governments must be made to recognise, by way of state legislation if necessary, the unsustainable practice of ridiculous rate rises and over-the-top spending. If we were to force people to vote in local government elections, just to be able to say people are now ‘engaged’ with grassroots politics, we would fail to address these alarming issues with local government entirely. Compulsory voting on local government elections would give councils a mandate which could only lead to further over-government and over-taxation in our country. This would be a disastrous outcome for what little freedom is left in Australia.

Brent Fleeton

Committee Chair of Perth Young Professionals Inc.

Member of the WA Liberal Party Policy Committee

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