Pre-poll voting for local council elections started today for NSW’s 128 local councils, leading up to election day Saturday 4 December. As you get hassled to vote for the various faces on the election posters and flyers, former City of Ryde councillor Justin Li gives voters and would-be councillors a crash-course on what it’s all about and what’s at stake here.
What election? I thought they just collect garbage! Yes Councils do collect your trash (well not the mayor and local councillors personally) but within every local council sits a group of elected officials (equivalent to a board of directors in corporations) who oversee its operations and decisions. It is this group that is elected by their local community every 4 years generally and collectively, they make decisions on how millions of ratepayers’ money are spent on roads, community facilities and services day to day.
What kind of people run for council? Statistically mainly old, white and male, although in more recent times there are more examples of the young, women and the culturally diverse who buck that trend. The candidates will generally range from bored retirees, eccentrics, uni students, community activists, single-issue groups, to more serious political aspirants who see it as a training ground for higher office in State or Federal politics.
How are mayors elected? In some local council areas, the mayor will be directly elected by voters. In other councils, it’s the Game of Robes! The various characters you elect to the council chamber will constantly plot and stop at nothing to climb to the iron throne of local council politics. That is, the privilege of wearing the 19th-century Santa Claus styled mayoral robes which don’t get washed for a million years.
How much do they get paid? Not very much – around $30,000 a year on average depending on the size of the council. No, local councillors don’t get any helicopter rides, Commonwealth drivers or life pensions. If you’re lucky, you might get reimbursed for mileage driving to Albury or Wollongong once a year for the Local Government Conference. And that’s if your colleagues like you enough and vote to send you there (or if they really dislike you and just want you away from the next Council meeting). Also, expect calls from local residents 24/7, evenings and weekends as your mobile phone will be listed publicly on the Council’s website (and there’s no electorate staff to hide behind either).
Congratulations, you’ve been elected! Now what? Now it’s time to worry about staying re-elected in 4 years’ time!
Start with learning about the hierarchy of housing stock and what developments pinch voters’ nerves more than others. Local development is the bread and butter work of local government, but it’s more than pure planning law. At rock bottom are boarding houses because it’s a well-known that all uni students are dirty, noisy, pot smoking, rodents-attracting, Wi-Fi stealing, and their presence guarantees the devaluation of the next door neighbour’s property. Units and high-rises are tolerated as long as they are kept in mostly ethnic concentrated areas. Residents are generally okay with 4 bedroom houses and double garages, occupied by the nuclear family unit, unless built in waterfront areas where they are always blocking another rich person’s water views or sunlight (then it’s all-out war!). Child-care centres are all good and necessary for society, unless built next to my backyard.
Being responsive to weird and wonderful emails is a necessary evil. Among the most memorable over the years have been the woman who writes to me each time she finds a dead possum on the road, another woman who believed Council should compensate her when she scratched her Mercedes at a Council parking lot, a man who complained about stench from his neighbour who kept 6 chickens, 7 ducks and 2 dogs, and a man who insisted the faeces he found outside his house on the footpath originated from humans and not dogs (he was found incorrect after due investigation).
Now if all else fails and you’re dealing with a difficult customer, then blame another tier of government! For reasons beyond me, even today in 2021, maintenance of Australia’s roads is still divided between three levels of government such that some roads are classified as Local roads and others as State roads and Federal roads. The average person has no chance making sense of this sort of mindless red tape. So the correct answer to someone complaining about a pot hole is “I’m sorry but your hole is a State/Federal hole”.
With all that said, as much as mayors, local councillors and councils are often maligned and ridiculed in the news, footpaths, garbage collection, parking fines and trees profoundly impact upon people’s everyday lives. The thousands of men and women around Australia who serve and represent their local communities are mostly decent people and the unsung heroes of grassroots democracy. As a former colleague of mine who was in local government for much longer once said, it’s been 30 years of honour and 30 years of suffering for him.
Good luck to all the candidates and thanks for standing!
Justin Li was a local government councillor in the City of Ryde (2008 – 2017)