Green Left Weekly's Chris Williams spoke to Graham Larcombe, secretary of Wollongong Against Corruption, about the process underway in Wollongong to develop a new, democratic vision of local democracy.
WAC — which has spearheaded the call for a royal commission into corruption in NSW — has released a draft Charter for Ethics and Good Governance, to be launched at a mass community rally on September 13. The rally will demand that residents of Wollongong and Shellharbour regain the right to participate in local elections after both their councils were sacked earlier this year.
"Here in Wollongong", Larcombe said, "the response by the government to corruption in council — dominated by the Labor Party — was to sack the council and take away people's basic right to vote until 2012. What we say is exactly the opposite: that you need to open the whole of governance up to greater democracy and look at new models so these things can't occur again. Devolution of power, devolution of resources, accountability and transparency of decision making are the best ways to fight corruption.
"In the charter we don't use the discredited term 'consultation', where powerful people go through a window-dressing process to consult with those who don't have power. We see local governance as a participatory process designed to maximise the involvement of all residents in overall decisions."
For example, Larcombe explained, a plan to develop a city should not be left to experts and developers, but should involve as many people as possible to address issues such as prioritising for services and capital works, protecting the environment, increasing jobs and building connectedness between different communities.
Information must be accessible, Larcombe stressed. "Say you're talking about the setting of rates in a city. The responsibility of the council should be to put out all the data and information about the formulas for setting rates. The community should know how much big companies pay for rates as compared to how much residents pay for rates."
"WAC draws on the best of the 'small- l' liberal tradition focusing on the right to be informed, protection of individuals and the right to free speech", Larcombe said. "But we also draw on the best of the socialist tradition, emphasising the importance of people working collectively together and giving priority to groups who have been silenced because of inequalities of power and oppression.
"We are learning from the debates that the Socialist Alliance has been engaged in, about models in Venezuela, or places like Porto Alegre in Brazil and the state of Kerala in India. The lessons include the benefits that occur when you decentralise and devolve decisions and bring people into the process. These benefits include more honesty and integrity in public life, a more productive economy and greater equity."
According to Larcombe, priority should be given to those who haven't had a voice, such as "the poor, youth, or those who have no land assets". While these groups have "become disengaged and are not being listened to", Larcombe said, "the dominant ALP is drawing from a very narrow gene pool in terms of who's involved in the party". Rather than functioning Labor Party branches where members are involved in activities and discussion, "what you have is a very narrow group that is allocated funds from Sussex Street to run a campaign to create particular images — for example, of the candidate standing next to the Premier, declaring that NSW is 'open to business'".
Larcombe hopes the ALP will "heed the lessons of this debacle and commit to greater democracy and renewal within the ALP itself".
Corruption, according to Larcombe, "thrives in closed rooms where there is no public flow of information" and "when people are locked out of political processes. It allows a very small group of people to be in a position where they have better information and access to power so they can lobby to get decisions made in their favour."
Explaining the basis for corruption in Wollongong (and elsewhere in Australia), Larcombe said that during the last 25-30 years, "property development became the central driver of economic growth. If you've got land that can be re-zoned from one use to another use you can create enormous value and profits for your group."
Larcombe said that while "people are so angry at the way the [ALP] machine has run NSW", WAC's campaign "is certainly not about getting rid of the Labor government and voting for a conservative alternative. It is about building support for community democracy to ensure that all people's rights to participate are recognised."
"Just protesting is not sufficient", Larcombe said. "We need to think strategically about alternatives ... We're looking for ways to link up with other groups and community-based organisations to work towards this. People have concluded that the political model in NSW is bankrupt and very sordid ... This community has decided we need to do something about it and that's a really powerful thing."