By John Moyle
Party politics are the backbone of the state and federal electoral system, with Labor, Liberals, Nationals and the Greens dominating both lower houses and the senates.
This pattern of representation is also reflected in local councils, with the voice of the independent becoming increasingly rare and endangered as the tentacles of Macquarie Street and beyond reach further into local government.
The reasons are many, but the funds held by local councils and a ready-made power base for state and federal elections are just two incentives for major party interest.
Councillor Professor Kerryn Phelps says independents make a contribution “Under the Local Government Act 1993 Councillors are supposed to ‘represent the collective interests of residents, rate payers and the local community’ and according to the Code of Conduct they are not supposed to caucus or participate in binding voting blocks.”
The City of Sydney has long been a political football for both Labor and the Liberals and it is a credit to Lord Mayor Clover Moore that she has resisted this for so long, but even in the City there are only two truly independent voices.
“When I was first elected I thought I was joining a team of independents, however after the election it soon became very evident that the Clover Moore party did not even have the usual democratic process of a political party,” Cr Prof Phelps said.
Of the four local councils in City Hub’s distribution area, Inner West, City of Sydney, Woollahra and Waverley, not counting Clover Moore’s Independent team there are only five voices not beholden to party politics.
“Even a tiny change in voting in 2020 could see the Inner West become one of only three or four fully political party politics councils in NSW,” Councillor John Stamolis, independent, Balmain Ward, Inner West Council said.
“The enormous power and resources of the parties at the local level means that most people here vote ‘political’ and not ‘local’.
Cr Stamolis cites his own experience as a good reason to be wary of party politics in local government.
“In 2012 I was an experienced councillor and community leader for over 15 years and yet I was defeated by two brand new faces who didn’t live in the ward but were in major political parties,” he said.
The belief that councils are dominated by the major political parties is commonly held among other independents.
Victor Macri has been a councillor for over 12 years and previously served on the Marrickville Council, including time as Mayor, before its amalgamation into the Inner West Council.
“I think the community is best served by independents as they don’t waste their time fighting about state and federal issues when they should be focussing on local issues,” Cr Macri said.
Pauline Lockie who represents the Stanmore Ward on the Inner West Council said “The mere fact that you are Labor, Greens or Liberal already guarantees you a huge tranche of votes and even if they don’t know you personally they know the party and what they think they know what the party represents.”
“With the independents there is no machine that they have, to go back to check on what the correct response is.”
“The independents who are successful have a profile in their local area through their community engagement, or focus on particular issues that are on the minds of voters,” Cr Prof Phelps said.
Angela Vithoulkas, City of Sydney independent councillor and now state upper house aspirant with her Small Business Party said that independents are penalised when it comes to campaigning, not only in ability to raise money, but also in attracting volunteers and advisors.
“My last campaign cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it is almost impossible for an independent to raise a lot of money because you don’t have the infrastructure or the historical set up of people automatically voting for you,” Cr Vithoulkas said.
“Big party machines have the ability to access volunteers and advisors in many areas and being an independent is much like a small business, you have to become a jack of all trades.”
Bearing in mind metropolitan councillors receive only around $28,000 per year and City of Sydney councillors up to $36,000 annually, no councillor is in it for the money.
Most have to balance part or full time work with council duties and those with families are even more pressed due to the extensive amount of time devoted to council and constituent duties.
Cr Lockie, a freelance copyrighter and mother of one, said “It’s very rare that I would spend less than one or two days a week on council duties and then there are the briefings, meetings and events we have.
Cr Vithoulkas points out that woman with families are disadvantaged as balancing council duties with family life is difficult without large party assistance.
“You have to rely on family and friends and build your own army,” Cr Vithoulkas said.
“Local council, more than any other level of government, touches people’s day to day lives, and is a level of government where you want decisions made for the local conditions,” Cr Lockie said.