How to shape a social justice council

October 25, 2013
Sam Wainwright speaks at a refugee rights rally in Perth on October 24. Photo: Rez Nez

The result of the October 19 Fremantle Council election was a real glimmer of hope for us in Western Australia, particularly after the bleak state and federal results this year.

Under the first-past-the post system used in WA council elections, I was re-elected in Hilton Ward with 58% of the vote, compared with 33% in 2009. In the other wards, the incumbent councillors defeated more conservative opponents. Mayor and Greens member Brad Pettitt won more than 70% of the vote, defeating former state and federal Liberal candidate Matthew Hanssen.

The result was especially significant due to the state government’s plan to slash the number of councils in greater Perth from 30 to 15. This would, in practice, abolish the City of Fremantle — attacking democratic representation and the ability of the community to shape its destiny.

Big business and development moguls welcome the plan, but an extensive community survey of Fremantle residents showed that 70% were opposed to the amalgamation and 75% wanted to have a say on changed boundaries. The state government plans to ignore residents on both counts, despite promising otherwise during the state election campaign.

Like many local governments, Fremantle council earns income from commercial investments. The Low Carbon City Plan adopted in 2011 proposes that the council shift some of this capital into its own renewable energy infrastructure.

There's no better candidate than the community-owned wind farm proposed for North Quay at the gateway to Fremantle, given planning approval by council and actively supported by the Maritime Union.

It represents the antithesis of the fossil fuel mafia that runs WA. Perhaps that's the very reason the Port Authority, and through it the state government, refuses to grant approval. Meanwhile, they wasted $200 million trying to restore a coal-fired power station.

Support for the wind farm is growing. Broadening and strengthening the political campaign to get approval is one of the most important challenges for anyone in WA fighting for a clean energy future.

As a Socialist Alliance candidate in the recent state and federal elections, I hammered the point that there is no possibility of stopping runaway climate change or creating a more just and democratic society without bringing sectors of the economy like energy into democratic public ownership.

It is one thing to preach this in the abstract, but the chance to make it happen on the ground and prove it can work, even if on a modest scale, underscores how important this is.

I'm proud to have overseen a tenfold increase in the council's spending on cycling infrastructure. However, even this puts us on a collision course with the state and federal governments.

Perth doesn't have a proper bus service to the airport, let alone a train. Yet there are freeway works around the airport totalling $1 billion.

The state government is also trying to shut down 700 kilometres of grain freight rail lines and push an extra 40,000 truck movements a year onto roads. The overdue maintenance bill to keep these lines open is only $93 million.

Expanding road capacity and building new freeways doesn't solve congestion, it induces even more traffic. Vehicle movements in cities are rising at a higher rate than the population. Even modest attempts by local councils to encourage cycling and walking run up against the fact that freeway construction is flooding cities with more traffic.

State and federal transport policy is founded on subsidising the motor and road construction industries at a truly catastrophic cost to the community in terms of road accident trauma, diesel particulate pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and the degradation of urban spaces.

In every Australian city, communities will find themselves fighting “freeway madness”. In Fremantle, the battle is shaped by the huge growth in freight volume to the port, causing huge growth in truck traffic and freeway projects at the northern and southern entrances to the city.

The Fremantle Road to Rail campaign has actively sought to avoid the “not-in-our-backyard” response of trying to push the traffic into someone else's lap.

The campaign has led to new allies, such as farmers and National Party voters in the Wheatbelt Railway Retention Alliance.

There have also been strides towards social justice. We now have a Workplace Values policy that recognises council workers' right to organise and several measures favouring affordable and social housing. The council directly employs staff with disabilities and is improving access and inclusion as well.

But there is more work to do before it can be called a social justice council. A decade ago, Fremantle led the way in programs and activities that actively supported and involved youth, the aged, and Aboriginal people.

The modest but important recent achievements of Fremantle Council are down to two things. First, the Labor and Liberal parties don't caucus at council level in WA, making it possible to build agreement and alliances that might otherwise be excluded. There isn't a policy achievement I've been associated with that hasn't been actively supported by one of my council colleagues; whether Green, Labor or independent.

Second, and most importantly, we have an engaged and activist local community pushing council and shaping public debate. Encouraging and organising community activism is more important than ever, and the preservation and extension of these gains will depend on it.

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