The challenges for socialists on councils

Issue 
Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Sam Wainwright has been a Socialist Alliance councillor on the City of Fremantle council since 2009, when he was elected in the Hilton ward with 33% of the vote. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's Mel Barnesabout what he has been able to achieve while on council.

The first part of this interview “Making Fremantle a 'social justice town'” was published in last week’s issue.

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What are the challenges to working on council?

As passionate as I am about improving the things that I think are important, at the end of the day I'm only one vote on council. So I have to convince the other councillors, or get the community to convince the other councillors. Sometimes you don't always succeed, there are areas where you lose.

The other thing you find out when you get on local government is just how constrained local government is. In Australia local government is a creature of state government legislation. So it has very limited capacity to raise money, and the majority of the money it does raise just has to be spent on paying the staff wages and repairing the potholes and fixing bike lanes, and there's not much money left over.

It's been made worse in Western Australia by the fact that our state government has introduced the Development Approval Panels (DAP), where developments over $1 million get taken out of the hands of local government and get approved or disapproved by the DAP, and the city of Fremantle only has one representative on the DAP that judges these things.

We have to spend all our time and work judging all the itsy bitsy development applications – whether a carport should be allowed here, or whether Tom Smith should be allowed a second storey extension on his house - and as soon as there's a development that's really big, your elected representatives don't have a right to have a say on it. So that's one example of the restraint the state government puts on you.

The other example of a restraint is on issues that you would think the council could control, but they can't. So, for example, the issue of affordable and low-cost housing, on any given development under state government rules, we can only impose a maximum of 15% of affordable housing and even then it has to be incentivised. So, you have to say to the developer – if you don't provide any affordable housing you can only put this many units in, if you put in 10% affordable housing you can put in that many units, but we can't impose a blanket floor.

This also means that local governments who are trying to attract developer dollars can end up undercutting each other. Fremantle can say as we did recently, that the developer needs to have 15% but a neighbouring council can not impose any and try and attract the developer away from us.

A neighbouring council in one of their schemes, their planning officer proposed 5% affordable housing and some of their councillors, who had got sucked in to the fear and loathing about public housing tenants wanted to reduce it to 2%

The state government says that they want local government to create opportunities for more affordable low cost housing but then impose those kinds of rules on us. So you can see how constrained we can be.

Why should socialists be involved with local government?

If you're passionate about trying to create a better world, that puts people and the environment first, you're committed to social justice and ecological sustainability, and you want to see your local government play its part in transforming the world in that way, then you've got to get stuck in and have a go and try and change things at the local government level.

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