Asking the real questions

Mayor Joshua Morris.

Mayor Joshua Morris.

BALLARAT City Council has spent a fair portion of its current election term asking the people of Ballarat what they think about our city.

It's asked for our dreams, our sense of reality and what should our future look like.

It's held workshops, sought online and written feedback and pilfered the city's leading minds.

The end goal will be another strategy that will guide the city's direction.

It's all very consultative and positive.

The end result will be intriguing in the least as, after all, the council is above all else the most influential advocate for the future direction of the city.

The question we're not sure will be answered is what exactly the people of Ballarat want from the councillors themselves.

Given what we've seen in this council term, we're far from convinced that councillors have the answer to this question.

In a past life, municipal representation was simple. Much smaller localities delved into pretty much solely the three Rs rates, rubbish and local roads.

Compare that with this current council, which is overseeing a development project in the west with values in the tens of millions, property developments in the central business district, which are historically calamitous, and major reconfigurations of local infrastructure to meet the needs of a society that will only settle for a little less than world class.

The council provides secondary services for mums, young people and old people alike.

They manage planning built on a 170-year-old template and find partnerships with China as important as those in suburban Ballarat.

None of which talks directly to mum and dad in Wendouree.

In fact, it's mostly jibberish to rank and file ratepayers.

The theory I have is that this is partly the reason why traditional candidates for local government are thin on the ground come election time.

Those who stand do so on the basis that council rides closer to state and federal issues than ever before. In another era, mayor Joshua Morris would have been hung and quartered in the court of public opinion for daring to accept a state parliamentary position while still serving as mayor.

This week the only people who were really upset were those with opposing political views.

Cr Morris has been a competent and highly visible mayor who will no doubt make a fine representative for Ballarat in the state's upper house in the coming years.

His decision reinforces the changing nature of local representation.

Another former mayor, John Burt, has also departed during this term of the council and remarked that had he known what the council was really like he probably wouldn't have put up his hand in the first place.

Councils have always been a stepping stone to higher office, but generally by way of building a local voice and connection with the community through years of advocacy and support for constituents in communities where respect doesn't come cheap. Nowadays, councillors arrive at the same end point but the path on which they travel is more high road than low road.

It's more about the infiltration of party views than representation of community views.

The question remains: Does the public care enough to advocate for a change in local government structures and elections to ensure confidence is retained in advancing issues and projects of real importance to residents?

Do we want directly elected mayors?

Or should candidates be aligned transparently to the political parties they have membership of on the council election ballot sheets?

Or are we satisfied to wallow in the indifference which has enveloped Australian attitudes to politics more generally in recent years?

The answers to these questions might be just as important in determining how we progress as a city as those the council is currently asking of its people.

andrew.eales@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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