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April 3: Local Politics

How council can carry the spirit of Eureka

By David Harris and Kathleen Woollacott


Last week Leadership Ballarat and Western Region participants examined local government. By studying the City of Ballarat we learned about the significance of this city and our region to Victoria's economy.

The evening commenced with an address by former councillor and mayor of the City of Ballarat, Ms Judy Verlin AM. A passionate leader with a commanding presence Ms Verlin advanced the idea that councillors are the cement between the community and the council officers. Her observations challenged assumptions participants held around the function of local government.

Participants next assembled in the public gallery to observe a council meeting. Seated in the council chamber were the councillors, flanked by council officers. The public gallery filled with eighty people, to the casual observer this added to the sense of occasion.

Together participants watched the councillors stand and recite the declaration that is writ large on the northern wall of the council chamber. The Mayor, first among equals, stood and acknowledged the Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung peoples. On the eastern wall of the chamber, in the direction of Bakery Hill, hangs the Eureka Flag.

In 1854 nearly ten thousand miners assented to the Ballarat Reform League Charter on that hill. Their manifesto opened - “That it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey – that taxation without representation is tyranny.” The miner’s unanswered demands led to rebellion under that flag.

So what of us? We pay rates, we have a voice and we vote. We no longer face the spectre of tyranny, yet when only 0.1% of residents in a representative democracy care to observe the council chamber do we now face indifference?

Maybe councillors have suspected this too. Council resolved after deliberation and numerous reports by council officers to live stream future council meetings. Their deliberations and decisions will be recorded not only in written minutes but also on video.

However the councillor’s role is not confined to attending one meeting each month. Councillors set the agenda for our city and oversee a workforce of 940 employees and hundreds of volunteers delivering municipal services costing around $200 million annually. Participants learned that local government is not only about roads, rates and rubbish. The council’s job is to shape the future; a future where our city will grow to 160,000 residents by 2040. We need to show less indifference to the work they do.

By meetings end councillors were deliberate in their actions yet slowed by fatigue. It was apparent that the role of councillor is a collaborative pursuit but also a lonely job. These are good people doing their best; and the beauty of representative democracies is that every four years the residents decide if they deserve better. That should be reason enough to overcome our indifference.

Participants concluded their evening by reflecting on what they have learned so far. They agreed that leadership takes the individual characteristics of courage, resilience, advocacy, listening and passion. Leadership is not simply allocated to a particular position. Anyone can become a leader, regardless of their position in life. Indeed that was the cornerstone of Australian democracy laid in this city in 1854.