Sue Bolton council: The big issues are affordable housing, poverty and climate change

Sue Bolton. Photo: Fightback.

Socialist Alliance’s Sue Bolton spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Dave Holmes about her work as an elected socialist local councillor in Moreland, a municipality in Melbourne.

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with Bolton. You can find the whole interview at links.org.au.

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One of the big constraints on councils involves finances. The state governments are kept on a financial leash by the federal government in Canberra, which has the main taxing power. Local councils are also kept on a tight leash by the state governments, and they have to operate within the strict limits set by the Local Government Act. The funding arrangements are such that councils are forced to increase rates on residents. Apart from some federal grants, their only other source of income is money from fines and fees. Is there a way around this? What would you envisage?

Local government is also affected by the federal budget. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s cuts in the federal budget also cut grants to local governments. This is a very difficult area. Federal grants to state governments, for instance, to sustain public libraries, have been halved. There are a lot of services that are provided at local level by local government — maternal and child health clinics, home and community care when people can no longer look after themselves (meals on wheels, house cleaning and shopping, etc), roads and footpaths.

The main means the council has of raising money is rates and fees and charges. There is a lot of pressure to increase rates beyond the Consumer Price Index. Rates aren’t means tested. A worker or a welfare recipient may have inherited a house, be living in it and then have to pay the same rates as a wealthy neighbour. It’s a very inequitable form of taxation.

Generally, I have voted against raising rates above the level of inflation. Newstart [unemployment welfare payments], for instance, isn’t indexed above the level of inflation. Also a lot of workers have been forced to accept wage increases below the level of inflation in recent times. I think rates should be progressive, set according to income. There is a discount for age pensioners.

In 2013, I attempted to move a council resolution for the council to give a discount to all welfare recipients. That didn’t get up mainly because the state government subsidises the concession to pensioners but isn’t willing to do the same for other welfare recipients. Perhaps we should consider a campaign around this issue in the future.

I think Steve Jolly — the Socialist Party’s councilor in Yarra — has also generally opposed increasing rates and charges above the level of inflation.

The Greens have taken a different tack. They put forward to council a position that the Municipal Association of Victoria advocated, which criticised the Labor Party for saying that local councils would be banned from increasing rates above the level of inflation.

Jo Conellan, a former Moreland Greens councillor, argues quite strongly that there is a need to increase rates well above inflation in order for councils to replace their infrastructure, so that it doesn’t fall into disrepair. She says that in NSW local infrastructure is falling into disrepair because councils haven’t been bold enough to increase rates.

There certainly is a strong viewpoint, from the CEO and from certain councillors, that rates should be increased above the level of inflation. The Greens are happy to support rates increases above inflation.

The difficulty is where to get money from. In local government it’s not so obvious that money is being handed out to big business. Moreland’s budget is about $150 million a year. One thing that could be considered is differential rates. Some councils, including Moreland, had started to have a differential rate for gambling venues. This was disallowed by the state government: any money raised could only be spent on anti-gambling schemes (not put into general revenue). There is a differential rate for vacant land (land that developers may have left vacant).

As I understand it, the Local Government Act is a gigantic straitjacket for councils. More generally, we should call for scrapping the rates system.

The work that councils do should be funded directly by the state government. Some country councils call for scrapping the rates system; they have a very small rate base and a vast network of roads to maintain.

Socialists have traditionally opposed capitalist budgets, on a federal and state level. They finance the police force, the judicial system, the military and so on. But does that apply when we come down to the municipal level? What is your attitude to the council budget? Have you opposed them, or supported them?

So far I’ve voted against both of the Moreland budgets since being elected. Under the Local Government Act you’re not allowed to abstain on any vote; you have to vote yes or no or propose to defer.

I’ve voted against both budgets on the basis of opposing rate increases above the level of inflation. I’ve had an input into the budgets. I understand that in the previous council Lambros [Tapinos, ALP right] traditionally voted against the budget.

It is different to the state or federal budgets. There’s no real repressive apparatus — only parking inspectors and some local laws officers, so there is a small policing function in terms of enforcement of local laws (noise, dogs, etc). Also, there isn’t any obvious support for big business. Although some planning decisions are questionable, such as with the rezoning of the old Bunnings hardware chain site on Gaffney Street where a Coles supermarket got kid glove treatment.

There are two Greens on the council. How do you assess their role there?

It’s certainly better having the Greens on council rather than having to deal with wall-to-wall ALP, Liberal Party or DLP. I’ve been able to work with the Greens on some issues, mainly environmental issues.

But the Greens are also limited. They voted for all of my motions around the East-West Link but they never pushed the council to take a stronger campaigning stance on the issue and weren’t involved in helping the grassroots campaign. Their view of council work is limited to the discussions and votes among councillors. They take up the complaints of residents, but they don’t see a need to or don’t attempt to help residents campaign against rotten decisions or campaign for particular issues.

They don’t use their elected positions to help bolster campaigns. I think they see residents' campaigns as being irrelevant to winning an issue on council. They think it’s just a question of the power of argument and persuasion and a voting base and working with the council bureaucracy.

A number of the councillors — ALP, Greens, Liberal and DLP — often get the council staff to draft their motions. I never get the council staff to write my resolutions.

The Greens have a very different approach to that of the Socialist Alliance. It’s very similar to the Labor Party approach: just vote for us and we’ll engage in discussion and debate with other politicians and the state apparatus in order to do good things on your behalf.

They don’t have an approach of trying to give residents and people an agency in the process. That’s another reason why on various social issues (LGBTI, anti-racism or whatever) they are very big on the tokenistic approach, the fluffy feel-good statements without action on concrete steps that might address the issue.

The Greens have helped trumpet Moreland as carbon neutral when it isn’t. Moreland’s “carbon neutral” status is based on gas co-generation and carbon offsets. There are some good things that council has done to take action on climate change, but the municipality is certainly not carbon neutral.

What do you see as the big issues facing the council in 2015 and beyond?

One big issue is climate change and dealing with heat-affected people and working out how to help relieve the stress. I think that is a huge issue going into the future.

I also think the lack of affordable housing in the area is a big issue. The council needs to do what it can to try and push for genuinely affordable public housing.

Another big issue is poverty in the community as a result of the neoliberal cuts by the various governments. We’ve got loss of jobs and unemployment, especially in the north of Moreland. We’ve got people suffering on Newstart, which hasn’t been seriously increased in over 20 years.

We’ve also got people on bridging visas living on 89% of Newstart. We’ve got international students and people with particular migration statuses where they are not entitled to any kind of government help at all and who can’t find work. Then there are people on the minimum wage or even below the minimum wage.

There is a perception of Moreland being a white-collar professional area, but actually there are two Morelands. There is the white-collar professional Moreland, but there is also a working-class or blue-collar Moreland, which is often overlooked by council. So a lot of solutions council looks to in terms of jobs are much more oriented to the white-collar professional sectors rather than the working-class ones.

It’s also important to retain industrial land within the Moreland area so that there is a possibility of getting blue-collar jobs close to home. There would be a lot of workers in Moreland who would work at Ford or in the auto components industry that’s dependent on Ford. This is going to be a huge issue. Those workers won’t be going into some office, they’re not going to become lawyers; they need similar sorts of work to what they had.

I also smell a push in Moreland for more of a user-pays commercialisation approach, especially with the hire of meeting rooms to groups. The argument will be that Moreland has to get money somehow, therefore it needs to charge more for council services.

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