Socialist councillor works for local democracy

Saturday, February 22, 2014
Moreland Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton.

Sue Bolton was elected to Moreland City Council in north Melbourne in November 2012 on the platform of “community need not developer greed”.

As a member of the Socialist Alliance, Bolton sees it as important to take up the “bread and butter” issues as well as broader social justice issues.

Bolton does not seek to just represent residents, but encourages residents to get involved in local community campaigns and feel empowered to take up issues with the council themselves.

Bolton told Green Left Weekly: “When residents approach me about an issue which isn’t just an individual grievance, I usually suggest that they take up a petition among other residents and come to the next council meeting to use the 30 minutes of question time at the beginning of the meeting to question the councillors and council directors.

“People need to state their case directly so that councillors and council directors can understand the impact of their decisions on people.

“This 30 minutes of question time is a democratic space for residents, but councils are always trying to work out ways of restricting it.”

There are a couple of recent local examples of where council made bad decisions and local residents’ campaigns forced the council to reverse its decisions. One was the campaign to save Moreland’s bluestone lanes. Moreland council voted in 2013 to preserve the bluestone lanes after a 12 month campaign by local residents to overturn its original decision to concrete the bluestone lanes.

As a result of Brunswick residents campaigning over the last six years, the council has finally proposed mandatory height limits for Brunswick and the right of residents to object to developments, including over height.

Bolton says it is an essential principle for a socialist councillor to promote community activism. “An active community is capable of defending itself from attacks, and it is able to win improvements for that community,” she said.

“Resident viewpoints will always be far better represented when the community comes together and puts their voice strongly, rather than relying on an elected person to do it on their behalf.

“Even on difficult issues, like development issues, there is a wealth of experience in the community that governments could tap into if they were genuine about it. I don’t have a background in town planning, but I have found a lot of residents have in-depth knowledge about issues such as environmental sustainability, housing and planning. It gives me confidence that people are quite capable of running society themselves, as opposed to having politicians making decisions over their heads.

“One common idea that gets repeated by state and federal governments is that councillors shouldn’t just represent residents, but should represent all stakeholders equally. By stakeholders they mean big business and the big developers. That’s their way of trying to twist the role of councillors to not stand up for the rights of residents.”

A year into the job, Bolton has achieved a number of initiatives. She got council support to buy the site of the Ballerrt Moooroop College, an Aboriginal school that had been shut down by the Victorian government, for green and Aboriginal community space in Glenroy.

She won support for the Fawkner Community House to be able to expand its programs by taking on the management of the Fawkner Kindergarten site.

Bolton backed residents arguing for for mandatory height limits and to save the bluestone lanes.

Bolton worked with the Greens councillor Lenka Thompson to get a unanimous vote by the council to oppose the sell-off of public housing, oppose the transfer of public housing to housing association and investigate the setting up of a land trust for low-cost housing.

Bolton was the only councillor to remain opposed to accepting state government money to install CCTV cameras, proposing alternatives such as a late-night community bus, better street lighting, an anti-sexism campaign and more resources for domestic violence services.

She stood up against inappropriate development in Moreland. Bolton helped set up the Save Coburg campaign to oppose the overdevelopment of central Coburg. Residents have won some concessions from council, which agreed to reduce the height of the buildings and include more open space.

Bolton said the campaign to stop the $8 billion East West Link — a project that will create more traffic in Moreland while diverting money from public transport —highlighted the importance of community campaigns.

Bolton said: “Initially Moreland council was just going to move a resolution of opposition to the East West Link, and send a polite letter to the state transport minister criticising the plan, but that wouldn’t have done anything.”

Bolton passed a motion for the council to organise a public meeting and put $40,000 into a community campaign against the project. She helped organise the grassroots community group to campaign against it.

The first public meeting attracted more than 150 people, with growing interest. Following on from the public meeting, the Moreland Community against the East West Tunnel (MCAT) was formed. MCAT has started doing stalls and is planning a rally on March 30.

Bolton has also used her position to tackle big issues such as climate change. After the summer heatwaves in Victoria, when homeless people were forced to move on from air-conditioned public spaces, Bolton won a motion for the council to investigate buildings to be used for heat refuges and relief centres where people can go to escape the heat, including to sleep.

Bolton knows her position on council is stronger if she works alongside other progressive people who take an interest in what happens on council. When she was elected, the Socialist Alliance set up Moreland Socialists to bring progressive people together to support Bolton’s position.

Bolton said: “We set up Moreland Socialists mainly because there were so many people who were heartened by the election victory, and they weren’t just socialists.

“It was a vindication for radical politics, so we started a monthly meeting open to anyone who wanted to build left-wing and progressive politics in the Moreland area. There are a number of people involved who are not members of the Socialist Alliance.

“The group is helpful for me as a sounding board, it’s important there is a group of people to discuss ideas with, and who can organise left-wing activities in the area. There is a lot of pressure on councillors to run in a neoliberal direction, and to not put forward radical ideas on council. Moreland Socialists helps.”

From GLW issue 998