Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Opinion

Canberra Writers Festival
For lovers of books, writing and reading

Why we should encourage MLAs to venture beyond Civic Square

By Kim Fischer - 29 June 2015 17

legislative-assembly

The 2016 ACT election will be the most significant election since self-government.

The increase from 17 MLAs to 25 should mean that our local communities are better represented in the Assembly. With five electorates of five members, each electorate now mostly lines up with Canberra’s regions.

Under the current three electorate system, the larger electorate sizes means that your elected representatives may have had little or no awareness of your local community’s needs. Molonglo was particularly problematic in this regard. Prior to the election of Meegan Fitzharris in 2015, no elected representative of Molonglo had been a resident of Gungahlin.

It’s tempting to just focus on the practicalities of fitting eight more members into the Legislative Assembly, but this would be a wasted opportunity.

After 25 years of self-government, it is an opportune time to rethink how we expect our Assembly to operate.

At the moment there is an ivory tower mentality held by many in the Assembly. Uniquely amongst parliamentary systems in Australia, members are not allocated local electorate offices. This means that MLAs and their staff can work in the Legislative Assembly every day and virtually never see their actual electorates.

Organisations regularly come into the Assembly to meet with MLAs. However, individuals rarely do and mostly communicate with MLAs by mail or email.

Without a local office, direct engagement with their constituents becomes almost entirely at the discretion of the local member. Mary Porter has set the benchmark for other MLAs, being well known for her mobile offices that regularly appear throughout her electorate. Unfortunately not all MLAs are as dedicated to these engagement activities.

Perhaps we should investigate a more permanent solution to encourage our MLAs to venture out of Civic Square. We don’t have to adopt the most expensive option of funding an office for each MLA though.

Why not make a shared space available in a town centre for the members of each electorate? The ACT Government already has property in just about every suburb, so the cost should be minor.

Access to a dedicated place to hold forums and hear the needs of their constituents would increase the accountability of MLAs and encourage them to work cooperatively on important local issues.

Imagine if a local meeting attended by the five electorate MLAs was held every month, either on a prearranged topic or on topics contributed by constituents. The goal would be to run the meeting as a productive, non-adversarial community forum with a minimum of formal structures such as motions and votes.

Alternatively, MLAs could be rostered to attend a community meeting that rotates through each of the 15 or so suburbs in their electorate. It would undoubtedly be a good thing for our MLAs to visit each suburb that they represent regularly.

Increasing the engagement of our MLAs with their electorate might mean a rethink about our community councils as well. Currently community councils are subsidised by the government in return for facilitating consultative meetings on a range of issues. But there’s no reason why these meetings couldn’t be hosted by our MLAs instead. Indeed, since they are our formally elected representatives and spokespeople it makes more sense for them to take on this role. Hearing complaints about specific roads, footpaths and other local issues would give them a greater awareness of community sentiment on issues and keep them better engaged with the population generally.

What do you think? Do our MLAs need shared or individual electorate offices? Should we have more opportunities to engage with them? Are our community councils outdated?

What’s Your opinion?


Post a comment
Please login to post your comments, or connect with
17 Responses to
Why we should encourage MLAs to venture beyond Civic Square
Matt Watts 12:54 pm 01 Jul 15

Kim Fischer said :

Thank you everyone for your responses. Having worked in the Assembly and been active on community councils, I wanted to throw some ideas in the mix on how we can strengthen our local democracy.

When writing the post, I was thinking about Local Government “councils” that are more accurately representative of the community as votes are widespread and ballots are normally conducted by an electoral commission. These councils have a clear mandate and transparent funding arrangements.

By comparison, community council meetings average less than 40 attendees, annual reports and budgets are not readily available, and few mechanisms of transparency and accountability exist.

We know the fact they are called “councils” confuses residents from time to time. I think we should either consider calling them “forums”, or else bolster their role through an expanded mandate and clearer roles and accountabilities.

If we are serious about the idea of community councils as councils, why not seek entry into the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA)? ALGA could be an added voice when lobbying for Federal funding for local projects. (The ACT government is not a member of ALGA.)

As for access to MLAs, it is true that we might see them at community functions or hear them on radio, but it is harder than it should be to arrange appointments to discuss private matters (like on Housing or Disability Services) at length.

Nobody is stating we should be serious about having community councils act as councils. Nobody is suggesting we decouple the ACT Government’s service delivery and create a Mayor McCheese in each town centre.

If you are wanting a discussion about the name “council”, fine; we in Belconnen have considered the move to “forum”, yet the ACT Government (which provides a small amount of funding for our operations) expects us to use “community council”. I’d happily support a change in title.

(The ACT Government used to send a representative to the ALGA – a public servant, not an elected rep – yet I don’t know when that arrangement seemingly stopped. The ACT Government probably perceived no benefit from it.)

Matt Watts 12:47 pm 01 Jul 15

John Hargreaves said :

Matt Watts said :

(I should declare that I am Deputy Chair of the Belconnen Community Council, and I am expressing my own views in this post.)

I am more than happy with the sentiment that MLAs should get into the community more often. I know Kim, who is a lovely person, although I strongly disagree with the notion that MLAs can run their own meetings as a *replacement* to Community Councils; to suggest as such is a surprisingly naïve proposition.

1. Even if they are an independent, each MLA is inherently political. Community Councils are invariably run by people who have a range of differing views, so they are more likely to arrange meetings in a bipartisan manner (or suffer the community’s wrath).

2. The boundaries of Community Councils do not always align with the electoral boundaries. Belconnen, for example, will be split between Yerrabi and Ginninderra electorates yet the residents of Kaleen have just as much of a vested interest in the Belconnen Town Centre as those who live in Page. Community Councils can give a voice to the *community* rather than the electorate (which is what MLAs do).

3. MLAs shouldn’t be rostered to any schedule. They live and die (politically) by the suburbs they visit, but we don’t know who we’ll end up with, and some might be lazy. Community Councils hold regular meetings despite the quality of local MLAs.

4. MLAs can attend as many community meetings as they wish. When they attend the Belconnen Community Council meetings, they are generally entitled to give an update if they wish. If MLAs want to be the focus of the meeting, they can organize their own meetings (and some do).

5. MLAs are rarely impartial experts in matters of public interest. Community Councils are able to invite experts to their meetings. The idea of arranging something like the head of the NCA to attend a meeting in each Canberra suburb is not going to be a realistic proposition, so there is clearly a need to retain Community Councils.

I am happy to hear the discussion, yet I am disappointed that the desire to seek greater MLA community engagement has somehow been conflated with the separate issue of Community Councils. The Belconnen Community Council has never been stronger, and I doubt the community would want to rely on the proposals floated in the original post as a replacement of the apolitical work we’re doing.

From my experience Matt, Councils are sub branches of political parties. have a look at who the presidents are of each Council and tell me I’m wrong…

Actually, I can think of some chairs/ presidents who aren’t in political parties. Nonetheless, the chair is merely one member of the executive. Yes, a number of people on the executive are openly members of political parties (such as myself) yet that is hardly unusual given community councils’ topics of interest, and the Belconnen Community Council executive includes a range of political ideologies. As I stated, most community councils act in a bipartisan manner.

Put your money where your mouth is, John, and tell me how these organisations are sub-branches of political parties.

Matt Watts 12:42 pm 01 Jul 15

John Hargreaves said :

Leon said :

Some MLAs DO make the effort to get out and talk their electors. The North Canberra Community Council recently hosted Shane Rattenbury and Simon Corbell. MLAs who have agreed to address our forthcoming public meetings are:

Meegan Fitzharris, July 21
Alistair Coe, August 18
Jeremy Hanson, September 15
Andrew Barr, October 20

For more information, visit http://www.northcanberra.org.au/about/meeting-schedule/

attending a meeting with only three to five real punters is not really communicating with the electorate. Community Council meetings are usually stacked with the Executive and their followers, MLAs and their sycophants, invited people who give reports and their helpers and three to five interested members of the public.

These Councils are a joke.

Well, John, I’m certainly aware of one MLA who once stacked a meeting against me yet I assure you that isn’t the norm in Belconnen. I can’t speak for other community councils yet, as I said, the Belconnen Community Council has never been stronger. The other factor to consider is the use of email and social media, which has expanded our reach to people who would otherwise be too busy to attend meetings.

jcjordan 9:51 pm 30 Jun 15

What annoys me is that we even have to ask this question, which only goes to show how amazingly over-governed in the ACT.

I am still waiting for any justification from our current MLA’s on why there is a need to increase the numbers. If they were doing their job right we would not need groups like the Belconnen Community Council or Northern Canberra Community Council.

Kim Fischer 9:37 pm 30 Jun 15

Thank you everyone for your responses. Having worked in the Assembly and been active on community councils, I wanted to throw some ideas in the mix on how we can strengthen our local democracy.

When writing the post, I was thinking about Local Government “councils” that are more accurately representative of the community as votes are widespread and ballots are normally conducted by an electoral commission. These councils have a clear mandate and transparent funding arrangements.

By comparison, community council meetings average less than 40 attendees, annual reports and budgets are not readily available, and few mechanisms of transparency and accountability exist.

We know the fact they are called “councils” confuses residents from time to time. I think we should either consider calling them “forums”, or else bolster their role through an expanded mandate and clearer roles and accountabilities.

If we are serious about the idea of community councils as councils, why not seek entry into the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA)? ALGA could be an added voice when lobbying for Federal funding for local projects. (The ACT government is not a member of ALGA.)

As for access to MLAs, it is true that we might see them at community functions or hear them on radio, but it is harder than it should be to arrange appointments to discuss private matters (like on Housing or Disability Services) at length.

John Hargreaves 6:48 pm 30 Jun 15

Richard Fox said :

With the new electorates generally based around the Community Councils’ geographic areas, I think it will become essential for all MLAs representing that region to attend.

The new electorates should increase the local angle, if an MLA isn’t visible in their area, people will notice. It should also promote the idea that locals should run for their home electorate, rather than live in Tuggeranong and represent Yerrabi, for example.

look what happened to the Greens last time – Bresnan lived in Molonglo, represented Brindabella; Hunter lived in Molonglo, represented Ginninderra.

John Hargreaves 6:45 pm 30 Jun 15

Matt Watts said :

(I should declare that I am Deputy Chair of the Belconnen Community Council, and I am expressing my own views in this post.)

I am more than happy with the sentiment that MLAs should get into the community more often. I know Kim, who is a lovely person, although I strongly disagree with the notion that MLAs can run their own meetings as a *replacement* to Community Councils; to suggest as such is a surprisingly naïve proposition.

1. Even if they are an independent, each MLA is inherently political. Community Councils are invariably run by people who have a range of differing views, so they are more likely to arrange meetings in a bipartisan manner (or suffer the community’s wrath).

2. The boundaries of Community Councils do not always align with the electoral boundaries. Belconnen, for example, will be split between Yerrabi and Ginninderra electorates yet the residents of Kaleen have just as much of a vested interest in the Belconnen Town Centre as those who live in Page. Community Councils can give a voice to the *community* rather than the electorate (which is what MLAs do).

3. MLAs shouldn’t be rostered to any schedule. They live and die (politically) by the suburbs they visit, but we don’t know who we’ll end up with, and some might be lazy. Community Councils hold regular meetings despite the quality of local MLAs.

4. MLAs can attend as many community meetings as they wish. When they attend the Belconnen Community Council meetings, they are generally entitled to give an update if they wish. If MLAs want to be the focus of the meeting, they can organize their own meetings (and some do).

5. MLAs are rarely impartial experts in matters of public interest. Community Councils are able to invite experts to their meetings. The idea of arranging something like the head of the NCA to attend a meeting in each Canberra suburb is not going to be a realistic proposition, so there is clearly a need to retain Community Councils.

I am happy to hear the discussion, yet I am disappointed that the desire to seek greater MLA community engagement has somehow been conflated with the separate issue of Community Councils. The Belconnen Community Council has never been stronger, and I doubt the community would want to rely on the proposals floated in the original post as a replacement of the apolitical work we’re doing.

From my experience Matt, Councils are sub branches of political parties. have a look at who the presidents are of each Council and tell me I’m wrong…

John Hargreaves 6:43 pm 30 Jun 15

Leon said :

Some MLAs DO make the effort to get out and talk their electors. The North Canberra Community Council recently hosted Shane Rattenbury and Simon Corbell. MLAs who have agreed to address our forthcoming public meetings are:

Meegan Fitzharris, July 21
Alistair Coe, August 18
Jeremy Hanson, September 15
Andrew Barr, October 20

For more information, visit http://www.northcanberra.org.au/about/meeting-schedule/

attending a meeting with only three to five real punters is not really communicating with the electorate. Community Council meetings are usually stacked with the Executive and their followers, MLAs and their sycophants, invited people who give reports and their helpers and three to five interested members of the public.

These Councils are a joke.

Matt Watts 5:09 pm 30 Jun 15

(I should declare that I am Deputy Chair of the Belconnen Community Council, and I am expressing my own views in this post.)

I am more than happy with the sentiment that MLAs should get into the community more often. I know Kim, who is a lovely person, although I strongly disagree with the notion that MLAs can run their own meetings as a *replacement* to Community Councils; to suggest as such is a surprisingly naïve proposition.

1. Even if they are an independent, each MLA is inherently political. Community Councils are invariably run by people who have a range of differing views, so they are more likely to arrange meetings in a bipartisan manner (or suffer the community’s wrath).

2. The boundaries of Community Councils do not always align with the electoral boundaries. Belconnen, for example, will be split between Yerrabi and Ginninderra electorates yet the residents of Kaleen have just as much of a vested interest in the Belconnen Town Centre as those who live in Page. Community Councils can give a voice to the *community* rather than the electorate (which is what MLAs do).

3. MLAs shouldn’t be rostered to any schedule. They live and die (politically) by the suburbs they visit, but we don’t know who we’ll end up with, and some might be lazy. Community Councils hold regular meetings despite the quality of local MLAs.

4. MLAs can attend as many community meetings as they wish. When they attend the Belconnen Community Council meetings, they are generally entitled to give an update if they wish. If MLAs want to be the focus of the meeting, they can organize their own meetings (and some do).

5. MLAs are rarely impartial experts in matters of public interest. Community Councils are able to invite experts to their meetings. The idea of arranging something like the head of the NCA to attend a meeting in each Canberra suburb is not going to be a realistic proposition, so there is clearly a need to retain Community Councils.

I am happy to hear the discussion, yet I am disappointed that the desire to seek greater MLA community engagement has somehow been conflated with the separate issue of Community Councils. The Belconnen Community Council has never been stronger, and I doubt the community would want to rely on the proposals floated in the original post as a replacement of the apolitical work we’re doing.

Richard Fox 4:14 pm 30 Jun 15

With the new electorates generally based around the Community Councils’ geographic areas, I think it will become essential for all MLAs representing that region to attend.

The new electorates should increase the local angle, if an MLA isn’t visible in their area, people will notice. It should also promote the idea that locals should run for their home electorate, rather than live in Tuggeranong and represent Yerrabi, for example.

Evilomlap 2:23 pm 30 Jun 15

Leon said :

Some MLAs DO make the effort to get out and talk their electors.

I had a Freudian slip and read that first line as “Some MLAs DO make the effort to get out and TAX their electors.

Leon 1:32 pm 30 Jun 15

Some MLAs DO make the effort to get out and talk their electors. The North Canberra Community Council recently hosted Shane Rattenbury and Simon Corbell. MLAs who have agreed to address our forthcoming public meetings are:

Meegan Fitzharris, July 21
Alistair Coe, August 18
Jeremy Hanson, September 15
Andrew Barr, October 20

For more information, visit http://www.northcanberra.org.au/about/meeting-schedule/

watto23 11:42 am 29 Jun 15

The engagements are there, but the electorates are really there in the ACT to make the voting system work and is less about the representation of the electorate. Canberra would be a better place if it wasn’t for the adversarial nature around many issues. I’ve heard objection to the light rail, because its not going to Tuggeranong. Well I’m sorry to me that is not a great reason to object something. Object to it on grounds of practicality or costs or something else, but voting to stop something purely because you are not benefitting is petty. Just like at the last election Zed promised a pool for Lanyon, because the 5 minute drive to Tuggeranong or Erindale pools is apparently difficult and it became an election issue to win more votes in one electorate, rather than voting along the lines of what is best for the whole of Canberra, which to me is far more important, than promising new things to different parts of Canberra and to create division where its not needed.

Alexandra Craig 10:49 am 29 Jun 15

Just in regards to the community councils, I think most MLAs make semi-regular visits to the meetings for a Q&A with residents. I know Meegan Fitzharris holds street stalls all the time too.

And while this is only one MLA, Andrew Barr does that Chief Minister talkback spot on 666 Radio and from the few times I’ve heard it, it literally is people calling up and complaining about roads, footpaths etc.

Tymefor 9:42 am 29 Jun 15

Well considering its pretty hard to make a drive from one end of the ACT to the other take more than 1hr maybe instead of individual electorate offices we should have a central place for them to gather…..oh wait.

Seriously though, public engagement is one of those things that I’m pretty sure every MLA and government wants to do as much of as they can. It’s really a matter of resources. I think often people forget to think about how much time and actual people, members and their staff, there are in our assembly. Especially considering the adversarial nature of opposition in most governments now.

The 8 new members are is a great increase in resources for our assembly. While more office space may be useful. I think you’ll find that an extra personal staffer or two per member will yield more public engagement. Although, a much harder sell to the media and most oppositions who love to look at larger investments in staff as greedy and wasteful. But think that a “cheap” 500k shiny office space is great value……..

Related Articles

CBR Tweets

Sign up to our newsletter

Top
Copyright © 2017 Riot ACT Holdings Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.
www.the-riotact.com | www.b2bmagazine.com.au | www.thisiscanberra.com

Search across the site