Socialist councillor on dealing with the state bureaucracy

May 15, 2015
Socialist Alliance Sue Bolton council meeting
Socialist Alliance Sue Bolton council meeting

Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton spoke to Dave Holmes about her work as an elected socialist local councillor in Moreland, a municipality in Melbourne. This is the second of a series of interviews with Sue Bolton. You can find the whole interview at Links: Online Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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You’ve now had two years’ experience on the council. How does it actually work? Can a principled left-winger actually do any good or do you just get sucked in and marginalised?

Normally we see the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state, that is, the police, on picket lines and at demonstrations. In the council, I see the other side of the capitalist state -- the unelected bureaucracy.

Within the bureaucracy there are ordinary rank-and-file workers and others who are seeking to climb the ladder. In order to climb the ladder, they absorb what is considered a "realistic" political and economic framework, which is neoliberalism.

Among the councillors, very few question the prevailing neoliberal economic framework. They accept outsourcing and council partnerships with business as the only realistic policy.

When particular proposals are put to council, it doesn’t appear they are ideological. The whole ideology is put forward in such a practical way that it doesn’t seem like an ideological thing, it seems like a cost-saving thing, but actually there is a huge amount of ideology there.

As a socialist, you have to be very conscious because it’s very easy to get sucked in and support things that might be against the policy positions that you have stood on. This is especially the case with proposals that include positive and negative things in a package.

Also, when it comes to progressive social or environmental issues, or community consultation or participation, council is very keen on tokenism.

That being said, it is possible to do things on council, and there are a lot of issues on which I might be the only vote or only one of two votes.

There are two factions on council which are most apparent when a new mayor is being elected. One faction involves all the Labor Party councillors and the Labor-leaning independent. The other faction involves the Greens, the Liberal Party councillor and the DLP-aligned councillor.

It doesn’t mean they vote with each other on every single issue, but on issues such as who is going to be mayor, and some policy issues, the factions vote together. I have kept clear of both factions.

The Greens and the Liberal Party? That seems very odd.

I think the Greens have made a big mistake in caucusing on any issue with the DLP-aligned and Liberal Party councillors. They would see it as trying to break the Labor stranglehold on the council. But caucusing with conservative forces on any issue can draw you into voting conservatively on other issues.

This caucus initiated a new and restrictive meeting procedure that the ALP enthusiastically supported, with the exception of one more independent Labor councillor.

Can you say more about this new meeting procedure?

All over the country, conservative forces and other levels of government have been attacking the ability of councillors to put forward independent initiatives. The reason for this is that residents have more access to councillors than MPs. This makes local councillors more susceptible to pressure than federal or state MPs.

Every time you trim the power of councillors it basically means you’re leaving the unelected council officers in control.

The previous Moreland council meeting procedure enabled councillors to be more responsive to the community by allowing councillors to move a resolution under councillor items at a council meeting after notifying other councillors that day.

The new meeting procedure doesn’t allow councillors to do this. Now, councillors have to lodge a notice of motion 10½ days before the council meeting, which can be re-written by council staff. The only other option is that councillors can move a general business item on the day of the council meeting, but it is not allowed to propose any action other than calling for a council officers’ report on an issue.

Given that residents can have issues which crop up the day before or on the day of a council meeting, the new meeting procedure prevents councillors from resolving issues swiftly because councillors can only call for a report at the next monthly council meeting.

I made full use of the councillor items agenda item whereas several other councillors rarely raised anything under "council items" other than to send a thank-you letter to some politician for time served.

Some things I’ve moved under councillor items include: getting council to investigate setting up refuges to deal with extreme heat; the legal action against the Victorian state government over the East West Link; getting the council to buy back the [Ballerrt Mooroop] Aboriginal school site in Glenroy for the Aboriginal and wider community.

Under the new meeting procedure, the Moreland council would have been prevented from taking legal action against the state government over the East West Link because I moved for the council to get a legal opinion through a councillor item.

This new meeting procedure is really undemocratic. Unfortunately, the Greens don’t see it like that at all.

I understand there are some moves afoot to circumscribe question time. Usually there is at least half an hour where residents can raise issues.

At the beginning of council meetings, there is 30 minutes for residents to ask questions. This is a small but important bit of democratic space.

Under the new meeting procedure, there was an attempt to force residents to write out their questions in full. Usually question time is reasonably liberal in the sense that a person can ask a question and make a supporting statement, so this would have been a big shift.

I successfully moved an amendment that residents only had to write down the topic of their question.

This was important. First, there are a lot of residents who don’t speak English as a first language. Second, a lot of residents struggle to deal with bureaucracy and authority or might not be very literate. Third, a lot of people freeze up when faced with this level of engagement with authority.

I went to some of the early council meetings after you were elected and it seemed to me that some of the new councillors were very deferential to the departmental heads who were sitting just behind the councillors. I understand that there are various things like meals and briefings that I would construe as attempts by the apparatus heads to influence the councillors.

The council has what they call information discussions or briefings, usually twice a month, including the Monday before council meetings. These meetings are closed to the public. They are not compulsory but there are attempts to force councillors to attend.

These meetings usually brief councillors on particular issues and go through the council agenda. Sometimes you can get some useful information out of them but they are also an attempt to get all councillors “on the same page” with the council bureaucracy and also with each other.

These meetings may be useful to council staff to get direction from councillors on what proposals councillors are likely to support.

Some councillors treat these briefings as the real decision-making body and the council meetings as a rubber stamp, refusing to consider any motions moved or arguments put by councillors who haven’t been present at the briefings.

It is a problem that these meetings are closed to the public, in my opinion. I don’t see anything that is discussed there that shouldn’t be known to the public. I moved a motion in 2013 to make these meetings public but I couldn’t get a seconder.

Since the Victorian Liberal Party government of the 1990s under Jeff Kennett carried out forced amalgamations of local councils and forced councils to outsource most of their services, there has been an attempt to treat councils as being like a board of directors with the mayor being the equivalent of a CEO. Many of the councillors don’t see themselves as representing residents but as being on a board of directors.

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