Socialist councillor Sue Bolton spoke to Green Left's Jacob Andrewartha about her experiences of working on council for eight years. Bolton was first elected to the Moreland City Council in 2012 and re-elected in 2016. Below are her abridged comments from that interview.
• • •
Effective councillors have to take up the people’s everyday issues, as well as the bigger issues, in the same way that a good union delegate on the job would. That’s important.
To win any sort of credibility you have focus on the things that might seem “little”, although not to the person experiencing them.
I’ve taken up pedestrian safety and traffic calming as well as racism and climate change.
New pedestrian crossings may not sound like a big deal, but every single one of those crossings on dangerous roads required community campaigns to convince the state government and council that they were needed.
I’ve managed to win new playgrounds and a second venue for the Fawkner community. I’ve also campaigned against the development of a toxic site in Fawkner where toxic chemicals, such as Agent Orange were manufactured in the 1960s and early 1970s. The site is still contaminated with dioxin, which lasts for decades. There’s never been an official investigation of the site, or of the cancers and birth defects.
While we didn’t win that at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeal Tribunal — it granted a permit for construction on the site — because of the community campaign we managed to shift council to take a unanimous decision against developing that site and to stop disparaging the community and myself for raising this as an important issue.
Because of the campaign, we found out a whole lot more about the site, and some extra safeguards around the handling of toxic soil were put in place.
We still have to make that toxic site safe for future generations. We don’t want a situation, like happened at Love Canal in the United States, or in Brisbane in the 1980s, where houses were built on top of toxic sites: decades later that led to widespread health problems for residents who did not even know that their houses were built on top of a toxic site.
Getting council to take the climate seriously has been another focus. I won the council over to change its procurement policy to not give contracts to companies that invest in or have contracts with new coal mines, Adani or anyone else.
Now council has to agree to implement that decision, and there are some moves afoot to try and get out of doing that. I am focussed on stopping council from cheating over its investments in carbon offsets.
I’m trying to get council to move towards 100% renewable energy and end its use of fossil fuel. To some extent I’ve been successful in getting council to support community groups such as Extinction Rebellion and other climate groups.
I worked with the Greens councillors to get council not to recognise January 26 as Australia Day in 2017. But, without support from the Aboriginal community and the anti-racist movement, that motion would not have got up.
At the beginning, the Greens saw this as a kind of debating point. I quickly realised that there had been no discussion with the Aboriginal community — which was imperative. I made contact with different parts of the Aboriginal community and the Wurundjeri Council sent a letter urging council to stop recognising January 26 as Australia Day.
That letter, and the intervention by some Aboriginal Elders on the night, overcame council opposition. While it did not take the next step — to cease holding citizenship ceremonies on that day — there are no references to January 26 as being anything other than a date.
I also helped stop the sell-off of the Ballerrt Mooroop Aboriginal School site to developers, which opens up the possibility of building and creating a First Nations community hub there.
Council as manager of contractors
Like other levels of government, councils peruse neoliberal agendas. Most of the top bureaucrats would not be there if they weren’t committed to or, at least be prepared to acquiesce to, a neoliberal agenda.
Council is also a massive bureaucracy. Each level of government has agreements with other levels on where money for this or that project is spent. The decisions are mostly dependent on partnerships with private enterprise or with a non-government organisation, such as a welfare group.
Very few councils deliver their own services, although I believe Mornington Council has a few of its own. Services are almost all contracted out, with councils acting as manager for the contractors.
This is the stark impact of 30 or 40 years of neoliberalism.
It is very hard for socialists, or progressive people, to work in that space. It really means that without community campaigns to back up your project ideas or arguments, you will not be able to shift the bureaucracy, or the other councillors.
Councillors need to be wary of just relying on information provided by council bureaucrats because it is all angled to ensure a certain outcome: the privatisation of home care is one.
A socialist councillor needs to not only help community campaigns, they also need to provide information to people campaigning for their rights. Often councils or governments are making decisions that no one knows anything about. This means that they are often not aware that their rights are being stripped away.
Roads, rates and rubbish
The right likes to argue that councils should only be concerned about roads, rates and rubbish (the “three Rs”) because those are the things it controls. Actually, it does not.
Some roads are owned by the state government and some by the federal government. My council has no control over Sydney Road — the main road going through Moreland because it’s a state government road. Council can’t change a thing without the state government agreeing.
The right likes to argue that council should stick to the “three Rs”, but they are also happy to move motions on broader issues when it suits them — such as to support ANZAC Day or the police.
I recently moved a motion of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to reinstall the anti-racism banner on the Moreland and Coburg Town Halls. One of the conservative councillors, who argues that council has to focus on the “three Rs”, countered with a motion of support for the “great work” the police do.
Council has done good work in helping grassroots community campaigns, such as when Moreland and Yarra Councils funded legal challenges against the East-West Link. This helped the community campaigns continue to organise pickets of the tunnelling work. Together, these two things helped defeat East-West link.
When councils get behind a community campaign, it can exert a lot of pressure on state and federal governments to change course. That’s the power that comes from working with people moving into action for their rights.