Wollongong Council: Systemic corruption demands systemic change


Things can't get much worse for the NSW ALP. Even Labor insiders are describing Morris Iemma's premiership as "terminal". At the heart of the crisis are the scandals involving ALP-controlled local councils, and in particular the March 4 sacking of Wollongong City Council (WCC) after systemic corruption was uncovered by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

The ICAC inquiry revealed shocking behaviour including more than $500,000 in bribes, "improper" relationships between council planning staff and developers (not to mention ALP councillors), an ALP MP lobbying councillors on behalf of developers, and lots more. Many in the community believe the inquiry has uncovered little more than the tip of a massive and corrupt iceberg.

After the sacking, to avoid annihilation at the NSW local government election in September, Iemma installed administrators to run WCC. Now, having lost the democratic right to clean out the council themselves, the people of Wollongong face four years of an unelected "council" run by three people appointed by the same ALP machine that generated the stinking mess in the first place!

The first and most important job for the community is to recognise Iemma's stalling tactic and demand immediate elections. This will not be an easy battle against a Labor machine determined to prevent Green, progressive and socialist forces gaining representation on WCC. Labor has already had the very nasty shock of Greens candidate Michael Organ being elected to the House of Representatives for the Wollongong-based seat of Cunningham in 2002.

It will take a big political effort to reverse the state government's intervention into WCC. Nothing short of a united campaign that mobilises community disgust will do — action in the streets is needed. The Illawarra branch of the Socialist Alliance is doing all it can to build such a campaign, working for united action by both the local groups that have arisen in response to the scandal, Wollongong Against Corruption and Reclaim Our City.

The Illawarra Socialist Alliance is also developing its own proposal for a democratic city council, responsive to community needs. We say that the only way to weed out corruption is to take the council out of the pockets of the corporate elite, especially the greedy "developers", and place it under the direct control of the community. If this doesn't happen the real estate mafia will always be able to use the ALP machine as its own tool to bypass council democracy, corrupting administrators and buying off "representatives of the people".

Unfortunately, with the appointment of the administrators, WCC is being pushed even further away from the community. The new administration has just released the 2008–12 Draft Management Plan (DMP) which, in order to slash the city deficit, proposes in the draft council budget a 5.7% rise in residential rates and, according to the April 30 Illawarra Mercury, "will also seek to recoup extra revenue from libraries, parking, community hall hire, leisure facilities, caravan rentals and child-minding". And so the WCC passes from sleaze to squeeze.

According to the administrators' foreword to the DMP, much of their attention has been devoted to the council's financial problems. The problem with this technocratic approach is that it ignores the real political roots of the disease and hence the political treatment required to actually clean up the WCC and restore local government democracy. Proposals made by the administrators to facilitate "engagement" with the community — such as information kiosks and the chance for up to six residents to address each council meeting for five minutes — are farcically inadequate, to say the least.

Holding elections straight away is the most important and immediate step needed to begin the clean-up. However, fundamental change is required beyond that if the community is really to combat the WCC's history of corruption, sexual harassment and craven obedience to the corporate elite.

The Socialist Alliance says that after elections the council should immediately re-establish the neighbourhood committees and all liaison committees with improved resources. All council meetings, including sub-committees and other extraordinary meetings, should be open to public scrutiny to prevent any deals being done behind the scenes with developers and other vested interests.

Community decision-making via the holding of local referenda if signatures are received from 10% of the population in the Local Government Area should be entrenched, as should councillor accountability to their platform by subjecting them to the right of recall by the community. If signatures are received from 10% of the voters in a ward (or LGA in the case of the mayor), a by-election should be called. There should also be a ban on political donations from property developers.

However, even more must be done to facilitate community involvement and interest in the governing of our cities, like regular community meetings to debate and decide on important issues that affect the community's quality of life, such as major development applications and the council budget.

The Socialist Alliance proposes that the Wollongong community be given the power to decide council budget priorities directly. This "participatory budget" approach, which began in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and has spread widely in the Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking world, actually started life as the only tool that worked against endemic WCC-style council corruption in Porto Alegre.

Only when democratic and political reforms such as these are implemented will Wollongong have the power to struggle against the influence of the major parties and their corporate backers, and to run our council in the interests of community need and not corporate and developer greed.

Chris Williams

[Chris Williams is a member of the Illawarra branch of the Socialist Alliance.]