THE independence of councillors at local government level has always been surrounded with scepticism.
Despite the protests of most elected councillors, the public believes most are aligned one way or another, officially or unofficially, to a political party.
Local government has become a stepping stone to either state or federal politics for many candidates in recent years. Given the acceptance of this step, it forces the public to make interpretations about decisions made at local government level with the bigger political picture in mind.
Across local government in Victoria, independence is preached in public by councillors but rarely followed behind closed doors. It’s not a criticism but a reflection on a reality which the elected officials often reject.
Last week, Ballarat City Council was split by a motion condemning the Baillieu government’s cuts to TAFE funding. These cuts have the potential to have a serious impact on employment and training in the wider Ballarat community and thus is particularly relevant for a council which has its own designs on improving the difficult jobs growth position which many regional centres face.
While the education sector has been loud in condemning the cuts, the government has stood firm. Opposition from councils would no doubt create more pressure on Premier Ted Baillieu to reconsider.
The most pointed recommendation against the cuts was defeated on the basis that it was too political. Of course, councillors largely voted down party lines, no doubt concerned about its relationship with the government, on a city, and possibly personal, level. Instead, the council will meet with a government minister to discuss the implications.
It raises the issue about the delineation between party and procedure and whether our councillors are acting first and foremost for the people who elected them.
If you believe discussion in Ballarat and take stock of recent political history, it is inevitable that members of this council, and the next one, will have ambitions for higher office. If that is the case, we believe ratepayers should be aware of these ambitions when voting begins later this year.
To go a step further, all candidates should be forced to reveal political party memberships or alliances to improve transparency. This would kill the issue once and for all – and stop the scepticism that continues to surround local politics in its absence.