Politics in councils

Remember your first day at high school? The excitement and the anxiety feeding off each other, the desperate need for a group to belong to, the sense that you’d come a very long way in the six weeks since you’d left primary school, a new optimism and an enthusiasm to get on with it.

If you care to feel those vibes again take a seat in your council’s public gallery at the first meeting after the local government elections in just under three weeks. The newbies couldn’t be more obvious if they were wearing a purple mohawk.

I have watched many councillors take their seat at the chamber table for the first time, and always I wonder why they are there. And I have learnt from asking that question of many that very few give you an answer that reflects the reality.

Most will say that they want to give something back to the community, which is as reliable as suddenly resigning politicians assuring us all that they’re leaving to spend more time with their family.

Just over four years ago when a friend, Mike King, told me over a beer that he was thinking about standing for election to Newcastle City Council, I asked him why. He was as idealistic as the rest of them, as earnest as the rest of them when he told me he believed with his background in management and finance he could help achieve a better outcome for residents.

He was mad, I told him. Newcastle council was an incessant political brawl that dragged everyone around the table down to the standing of a brawler, but Mike was adamant that he would not become involved in politics.

Mike was elected, on the Aaron Buman ticket, and while he is on the Buman ticket again this time it is, he insists, simply to make up the numbers, that he is in an unwinnable position.

He leaves disappointed by the political shenanigans of the council, and it has appeared to me that Mike, and others among the new councillors glowing with idealism, became players in those shenanigans, drawn perhaps unwillingly but inexorably into the politics that seems always to blight Newcastle council. I saw their obsessive pursuit of lord mayor John Tate as political, as something other than getting on with the job, while they may see it as meeting their responsibilities.

In three decades of watching Newcastle council I don’t think I’ve seen a councillor, or alderman as they were once known, who didn’t become bogged in the politics.

But it seems I am wrong when I see incessant brawling as a reason not to seek election as a councillor. No council in the Hunter, and perhaps in NSW, has been so blighted by political savagery in the past four years than that of Cessnock, yet 79 people are seeking to join the conflict! Only that other torrid arena, Newcastle council, has more candidates in the Hunter, with 81.

Most, if not all, those seeking election to Cessnock council will say they are going to clean it up, and even some of those under the banner of a political party will eschew politics. Yes, I have known councillors who don’t see a connection between political party sponsorship and political behaviour.

But as soon as these rescuers seek support for a proposal they’re in deal country, which means inevitably that they’re in politics. Support will lead to obligation and perhaps alliance, rejection will lead to reprisal and perhaps enmity.

Hostility is a much more powerful state in a council than alliance and co-operation, and when that develops into unfettered feuding, as it appears to have done at Cessnock, the elected council cannot function. At Newcastle the feuding appears not to have been unfettered.

But while politics seems inevitable whenever people negotiate within a group, the politics is more likely to be overwhelming and destructive whenever councillors are divided into political parties, and the reason may be that political parties are by their nature oppositional. And this applies to not just the registered political parties but to groups such as that of my friend Mike King, Aaron Buman’s Unite and Deliver team.

We’d all be better served without them.

Can councils be rid of political parties? Should parties and groups be barred from sponsoring candidates?

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