One aspect of local government that I have always admired is that I feel it is the purest form of democracy. Allowing for a few technical qualifications (Australian citizenship and not currently in prison being two), any adult can stand for election as a Councillor. You don’t need to be backed by millions of dollars; you don’t have to be a member of a certain party and you don’t need to be from a certain class of people. It truly is an election of the people, by the people, for the people.
Once elected, the process I have witnessed in my eight years is transparent and open. Councillors are accessible and welcome communication from the public. Council meetings are open to the public and business papers are publicly available to anyone interested. When it comes to a vote in a Council meeting, the gallery and media can watch while an item is debated and, at the end of the process, Councillors put their hand up under full view and scrutiny of the public to vote for each and every proposal before Council.
The current process occurring across NSW in relation to the draft management plans for Councils is a case in point. After draft planning processes and discussions with residents and open consultation processes, a budget for expenditure is put forward; firstly to a Council meeting and then ultimately to the public. The full budget and expenditure proposed for the next year – along with four-year and 25-year planning processes – is open for all the public to see. Comments are received by those Councils and decisions may be altered or changed based on feedback from the public.
I have been in China over the last week and, in direct contrast, consider the Three Gorges Dam project. This project, with an estimated cost of US$22 billion, started in 1994 and began operation in 2008. It is the world’s largest power station with generating capacity of 22,500MW. The public consultation process was minimal, if it existed at all. When the idea was first discussed, some engineers spoke out against the project – and were subsequently imprisoned. For some strange reason, the opposition to the project evaporated.
Initially 1.24 million people were relocated, but the estimate is that eventually some 5 million people will be relocated. That is greater than the population of Sydney! The vast majority of the relocations occurred without considering livelihood or cultural roots. Money was supposedly allocated to relocate to equivalent homes, but there were many reported (and I suspect many more unreported) cases of farmers receiving zero compensation and being told to relocate. Many reports predict landslides and riverbank collapses will continue for 20 years.
In Australia, this project simply would not have happened in this way. After extensive planning and public consultation, a project of this size would only continue when a range of opinions and views were considered and the long-term impacts were generally known. Opponents to such a project would not find themselves in prison but probably doing the round of breakfast and morning TV shows. If one person did not receive their agreed funding, the nation would read about it on the front pages and governments would be held to account, at the very least, at the next election. The checks and balances that help make democracy effective can also make the decision-making process slower but I would certainly prefer a slower but better decision.
Of course I am making an unfair comparison. I am comparing democracy – at the local government level, a real grass-roots democracy – to a communist state. Actually, I am not entirely certain how I would describe China’s system of government. There are political parties in China – but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the leading political party that controls and leads society at all levels. All government officials are required to be CCP members. Theoretically, party membership is open to anyone over 18 years of age, but in reality only those deemed to be fellows of local CCP branch leaders will have the chance to be recruited.
In local towns the Mayor may be the administrative head of and is usually the most recognised official, but the Mayor is the second-highest ranking official after the CCP secretary. In some areas, the Mayor may be elected but they have generally been nominated by the CCP and have little power anyway.
I am no expert on the political landscape in China, so please don’t take this to be a lesson on the Chinese system of government. However, my point is that what we have in Australia – in particular at the local government level – is special. Democracy may not be perfect but it is the best system of government I know of and I hope that every resident in Australia understands just how lucky we are.
As a side note, I also believe we are very inclusive. When our family entered Jingshan Park, our children were charged adult rates. When I questioned why they weren’t charged the half-price rate for children that was listed at the entrance, I was told that this was for Chinese children only! I can’t ever see a policy like that being accepted by Aussies!
Clr Mathew Dickerson
Mayor of the City of Dubbo