*Pic: The Ross Town Hall and former office of the Ross Municipal Council. ~ Photo by Kim Peart
I love democracy.
The British people have expressed their democratic will to leave the European Union.
Australia is in the midst of our national election carnival, which determines who serves the community.
I had my own shot at the Federal election in 1996, running in Franklin on a platform of social justice.
I ran in many Clarence Council elections after that, and one year, nearly got in.
I have been engaged in democracy with community concerns, as when the Bellerive Advancement Group was formed to question Council intention to pursue development around Kangaroo Bay, before properly asking the people about it.
The community won that round and the Council stepped a bit more carefully with the planning of the Bay.
After a few years living in Queensland, I returned to Tasmania last year to settle in Ross, where I am shocked to find community democracy is missing in action.
Ross once had its own municipal Council, working out of the Town Hall.
In 1993 a new and larger body was formed, called the Northern Midlands Council.
With the Council office located in Longford, in the far north of the new Council area, the seat of power is a long way from Ross.
To have some form of local input to Council work, the provision in the Local Government Act for Special Committees of Council was used to set up Council committees in the towns of the Northern Midlands.
Special Committees of Council are appropriate for managing a Council owned art gallery, or running a festival, but since moving to Ross, I have come to question the use of the Special Committee of Council system to represent a town.
Members of the Ross Special Committee of Council, called the Ross Local District Committee, are not elected.
Every two years members of the community can nominate themselves to be members of the town Special Committee, where there are a maximum of ten places.
There were twelve nominees for the Ross Special Committee this year.
Five Council officers have selected ten of those twelve to be approved for membership of the Committee at the meeting of elected Councillors next Monday night (27 June).
The list of those selected can be seen in the agenda for the Council meeting.
The two people who were turned down are not named.
If membership of the Ross Local District Committee were fully democratic, as with a Council election, I would have run for a place this year, being a strong community-minded citizen.
I cannot, however, go along with an undemocratic system, where the town committee for Ross is selected by Council officers.
I am disenfranchised in Ross, because I am denied the right to vote for representatives of the town, and I also refuse to participate in an undemocratic process.
But then, there cannot be an election for the Ross town committee, because the Local Government Act does not allow for the election of Special Committees.
Members of a Special Committee of Council work under the Council umbrella, must be managed by the Council and are subject to the same legal sanctions as elected Councillors.
The Special Committee of Council for Ross functions like a mini Council and in this role, operates much as a community association would, but cannot call public meetings or deal with planning matters.
Members of the Special Committee have a sense of authority, but no power.
Often planning matters of the Council will be presented to the Special Committee as a form of consultation with the community.
By the time the community gets to see the planning proposal, the work is already a long way along.
This happened recently with a town entrance statement for Ross.
The same process is about to happen with a new Town Square for Ross.
Matters that should be shared with all residents, are rattled around in a small group of volunteers.
If the comnmunity were asked for their views early on, instead of later on, better planning could proceed.
By keeping the community at arms length and only dealing with a selected Special Committee for Ross, democracy has gained a shrunken form and planning has suffered.
Nominated and selected volunteers cannot be expected to be on the ball with planning matters, especially when the Council are able to restrict how much is seen by the community, by only communicating with the Council Special Committee for Ross.
When Council officers, or elected Councillors, visit Ross, they only meet with members of the Ross Special Committee of Council.
When the elected members of the Northern Midlands Council meet on Monday night, their number will include a former Federal member for Lyons, and a former Speaker of the Tasmanian Parliament.
I wonder if the members will reflect on the detail, when they approve the Council officers selected list for Ross, that they are engaging in an undemocratic process.
I feel concerned for the two residents of Ross who were dumped from the list by Council officers.
They certainly didn’t get a chance to state their case for committee membership to the Ross community.
Those who have been selected by Council officers, certainly didn’t present their credentials to the Ross community.
Community democracy cannot be found on the streets in Ross.
That is what happens when democracy is suspended at the grass roots.
In this environment, I find it is very difficult to communicate with elected Councillors.
I wonder if this undemocratic environment in the towns of the Northern Midlands has an influence on elected representatives.
I find that my communications to Councillors will either be ignored, or I will be directed to speak with the Ross Local District Committee.
I am obliged to return fire and explain why I keep away from an undemocratic and unelected Special Committee of the Northern Midlands Council, set up to run a town.
Being told to report to the local Special Committee is all too much like living under a red flag.
I didn’t move to Ross to live under a red flag.
I wonder if the Special Committee of Council system for towns makes elected Councillors lazy.
Is this why planning problems have been building up in Ross?
Council officers are getting an easier ride, able to focus on communicating with the members of a Special Committee of Council, rather than dealing with the community at large.
I have written to the Minister for Local Government, wondering if it was appropriate for the Northern Midlands Council to be using the Special Committee provision in the act to run towns.
This is especially of concern, as the Special Committees fill the role that would normally be played by a community association, which would hold public meetings and elections.
When the voters of the Northern Midlands cast their poll in this year’s Federal election, will they wonder why they didn’t get to vote for the town committees?
Is there a level of governance where democracy no longer matters?
Or are we having the wool pulled over our eyes?