Monday, 8 September 2008

The Wollongong Democracy Charter

Wollongong Against Corruption, a grass-roots democracy organisation in the Illawarra, has released a draft Charter for Ethics and Good Governance,which they are panning to launch at a mass community rally in Wollongong on September 13.

While the rest of New South Wales will be tottering out of bed, down the street, through the coffee-shop and into the polling booth to vote in the local government elections on Saturday, September 13, Wollongong and Shellharbour residents, along with residents of a few other councils around the state, have the option of a long sleep-in.

The Wollongong council was sacked in March after corruption allegations began to hit home, and neighbouring Shellharbour council followed suit in July. Both councils are under administration, appointed by the (
ever-so-popular, and not at all corrupt or inept) NSW State Government. As a consequence, local residents have had their democratic rights 'waived' until 2012, when they will be allowed to vote for a new council. In shorthand? ALP corruption = punish the electorate.

The local response? Well, WAC (and the local community) are revving-up to demand more, not less, democracy, and a royal commission into the corruption and filth that the local council had been mired in. To this end, and to begin putting their demands coherently, WAC has prepared the Charter to be launched this Saturday. There is also a good interview in the latest Green Left Weekly with Graham Larcombe, the secretary of Wollongong Against Corruption, which ends with this quote from Larcombe which I think is particularly useful:

“Just protesting is not sufficient”, Larcombe said. “We need to think strategically about alternatives … We’re looking for ways to link up with other groups and community-based organisations to work towards this. People have concluded that the political model in NSW is bankrupt and very sordid … This community has decided we need to do something about it and that’s a really powerful thing.”

The full text of the Charter (an excerpt of which is reproduced below), as well as more information about WAC, can be found on their website.

4 Principles of the Charter

The basic principles of good governance to be asserted are:

(i) Decentralization of decision making. The Charter aims to deepen community democracy by empowering people at grass roots levels to participate in key decisions. More resources and functions would be channeled to the smallest or lowest competent authority. It is proposed to establish Community Democracy Forums (CDFs) to represent community interests in relation to local and city-wide issues, and to ensure that communities are fully engaged in Council’s decision-making process. Major decisions will be taken by Council only after a decentralised process of deliberation and dialogue. We proposed that CDF’s be established by a democratically elected Council. Community Democracy Forums will be involved in the preparation of local plans, budgets, rate changes and comments on major development approvals.

In Wollongong the NSW Government is seeking to slow down the return to democracy by appointing Administrators for four years, with no program of achievement milestones that could reduce the time. On the other hand, the Administrators are hastening the gazettal of a draft Local Environmental Plan (LEP), which was drawn up by a Council at a time when there was strong influence of “systematic corruption” over the local planning process. This Charter asserts that we should hasten the return to democracy and require a democratically elected Council to oversee wide-ranging consultations and input from newly established Community Democracy Forums that could then embody the visions of the broader Wollongong community.

(ii) Authority of the community in the decision-making process – i.e. the requirement that relevant development decisions above a certain level of funding and impact must be made available for review to relevant Community Democracy Forums. Submissions and recommendations from Community Democracy Forums must be carefully considered by Council, with written reasons provided if the community view is rejected.

(iii) Transparency of process Any community consultations by Council must produce minutes that are easily accessible to the community, and all decision-making meeting records must be freely available to the public;

(iv) Accountability of officials Public servants must be required to answer community proposals in writing and to ensure transparency of meetings. Sanctions are required for any official who deviates from the principles of the community consultation process, or who either accepts or does not report corrupt benefits or practices associated with Council decisions; accountability of officials requires adequate training to ensure they fully understand their responsibilities;

(v) Appeal processes The community requires an Office to respond to appeals for due process in decisions by Council that affect them, or against corrupt practices; and appeals from officials against whom sanctions may have been levied for deviation from community engagement responsibilities or for engagement in or non-reporting of corrupt practices.

5 Strategic directions to strengthen community democracy

The Charter proposes a number of initiatives which we will work with others to implement in our campaign to return democracy to our city, to improve ethical standards, to reduce corruption and to deepen participation of residents in the running of our city.

Decentralisation of Decisions

1 Establishment of action-based Community Democracy Forums

Council should support and invest in the establishment of Community Democracy Forums across the city. These Forums are the centerpiece of community democracy. They aim to empower and inform the community and reduce corruption. These Forums are much more than consultative forums. The latter are often cynically used to create a façade of community consultation. It would be mandatory for elected Councilors to respond to submissions from Community Democracy Forums.

These Forums should be required to work towards consensus through deliberation. They must give particular attention to giving a voice to those who have not been listened to. They should elect delegates to present neighbourhood and local views to Council. They must be provided with resources to increase community awareness, capacity building and local research. They must aim to empower residents to make inputs into strategic visions, Local Environment Plans, strategic plans, capital works priorities and rates. They must give attention to redistribution and city wide side solutions.

2 Extension of Independent Hearing Assessment Panels

The Charter supports Independent Hearing Assessment Panels (IHAP), which are being introduced in Wollongong by the Administrators and elsewhere across the state. They make use of expert independent specialists such as planners and lawyers. They are designed to reduce lobbying by developers and provide a check on undue influence on decision making. They make recommendations to Council and include community representation. IHAPs should be strengthened by strengthening community representation. Major and controversial assessments would include representation from elected representatives of Community Democracy Forums. Representatives of the Forums should be encouraged to be present at all hearings and make submissions to Council.

3 Determination of ward boundaries

Most Councilors represent wards. The establishment of ward boundaries can be changed from time to time to reflect local demographic change. In Councils, boundary changes to wards are drawn up by bureaucrats, following guidelines provided by the State Electoral Office, in consultation with elected representatives. The community must have confidence that ward boundaries are drawn up completely impartially and are free from political interference. An independent electoral specialist and/or statistician should be involved in reviewing any changes to ward boundaries before any recommendations are put to Council, whilst their independent assessment must be tabled along with the recommended change to ward boundaries.

Authority of the Community

4 Improving Council organisation design

Council in-door and out-door workers are employees of the community. They have a right to good wages and conditions and to be given opportunities for career advancement. They are encouraged to be active union members and hold a privileged and respected position in the community. They constantly interact with residents and they are an important asset to our community.

We propose that Council organizational structure should shift from a hierarchical and silo culture to a flatter structure that encourages greater responsibility of Council employees to work in team thats engages with and interacts with communities. The prime focus of Council workers should be on delivering economic, social and environmental outcomes to communities, with priorities for disadvantaged communities.

5 Community empowerment partnerships

Council has a key role in encouraging partnerships with different groups to strengthen the groups’ inputs into the future of the city. Council should aim to incorporate the perspectives of interested specific community groups such as indigenous, ethnic and youth groups into Council’s key strategic plans. Towards this end, Council should encourage and resource initiatives by such groups where they are seeking to develop solutions to key community concerns, the purpose of this support being to strengthen the groups’ ability to contribute.

Transparency of Process

6 Freedom of information

All residents are entitled to freedom of information. Public access to information should be available at no cost (except printing costs). We have too many cases where the public is denied access to information which is collected by public servants, paid for by the general public, and yet denied to the general public. In all cases where information is withheld Council must convince the Ombudsman (or, if established, an Office for Ethics and Good Governance) of reasons why information requested by the public should not be available to them.

Accountability of Officials

In Wollongong and NSW the democratic process by which Members are elected has largely been hijacked. The party pre-selection process guarantees that small, powerful and usually factional groups determine who their candidates are, who they will represent and how they will act. This is the antithesis of democracy. We believe that the Australian Labor Party, which has had a dominant position in all tiers of government in our city, must demonstrate that candidates are genuinely chosen on their merits through a genuine democratic process, as should any political party employing a pre-selection process in other electorates.

7 Ban donations to political parties

Under proposed electoral disclosure amendments, donations to individuals must be declared, when developers submit development applications to Council. But donations to political parties do not have to be disclosed when developers submit applications. Democracy would be strengthened if developer donations were banned altogether. In the interim all donations to political parties by developers in Wollongong should be disclosed when they are submitting a development application.

8 Financial statements of elected representatives

Like most citizens we want major donations to political parties and candidates banned. Our experience has taught us that there must be close scrutiny of the financial affairs of elected representatives, political parties and senior public servants. This includes assets, loans, business partnerships and relationships, donations and gifts.

9 Continuous learning

All Councilors and staff must be aware of their rights and responsibilities, including statutory requirements under ICAC, Local Government Act and Environmental Planning Assessment Act. Council must have a commitment to continuous training of Councilors and staff in anti-corruption, administration, planning legislation, community empowerment and budget management.

10 Protection of public servants

The General Manager and senior managers must be fully independent and free from political interference. They must be able to offer advice without fear or favour. Public servants in Wollongong must be guaranteed a right to free speech when they are exposing corruption, mismanagement and wastage, and to facilitate the public’s right to know.

Appeal Process

11 Office for Ethics and Good Governance

We propose that an Office for Ethics and Good Governance, headed by an independent Director, be established in Wollongong Council. The establishment of the Office would coincide with the return to democracy in Wollongong. The Office would replace the three Administrators. The Director would report to the General Manager, elected Councilors and the Director General of the Department of Local Government.

The Office should exist for three years, with a sunset clause. We believe it could be developed in other localities that have experienced systemic corruption. The aim of the Office would be to:

  • Strengthen and implement corruption prevention measures.
  • Implement ethical standards and protocols.
  • Provide compulsory ethics and good governance training programs for newly elected Councilors and staff.
  • Receive and report on complaints from the community and Council employees.
  • Encourage community participation in good governance.
  • Be accountable by providing an annual report highlighting individual and systemic ethical and good governance problems with solutions.

12 Third Party Appeals

Wollongong Council should advocate for the introduction of third party appeals in relation to development. The NSW Government should introduce legislation to provide for third party appeals. Currently residents cannot go to the Land and Environment Court to have the merits of a decision reconsidered. At most, residents can mount expensive legal challenges. According to leading planner John Mant, most states have third party merit appeals, with an independent body reviewing a case and coming to cost effective decisions. To protect the integrity of the process, costs could be awarded against frivolous appeals.

6 A broader agenda for change

The Wollongong Charter is about deepening community democracy in Wollongong. We believe the vision and principles will resonate with other communities across NSW. We will work with other communities to deepen democracy across the state. We recognise there are also national issues, particularly associated with the need for the Commonwealth to recognise local government in the Constitution and for national and state governments to provide a more secure resource base for local government. This would reduce pressure on Councils to develop close relationships with developers. The lessons of the Wollongong Council corruption experience have taught us to campaign for major changes at the State level. Proposed reforms include:

  • Amendment of the ICAC Act to make it mandatory that public servants report possible corrupt behaviour, not only to their Principal Officer – such as a General Manager – but also report directly to ICAC itself.
  • Development of new planning and environment legislation in NSW to make communities the centerpiece of the planning system, and to specifically repeal Part 3A legislation which provides the NSW government with interventionist powers in relation to local planning matters.
  • Amendment of the Local Government Act to insist that the Minister must specify a timetable for local government elections when a Council is sacked. A Minister should call for elections within three months of sacking a Council and outline steps to strengthen local democracy. Administrators should be provided with benchmarks and milestones in addressing corruption and its sources.
  • Broadening of Defamation Laws by introducing a “public figure” test which provides greater protection to free speech and criticism of public figures.

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