I have a long held interest in council politics – yes, I am a true politics nerd – and did a university history essay on the Blue Mountains Council of the 1930s. Yes – even more hard core nerd. But I will say in my defence (and it’s a meagre one) that the Blue Mountains City Council was an endlessly fascinating one, simply because each meeting was reported extensively in the best local paper in Greater Sydney – the Blue Mountains Gazette. The BMCC was always a battlefield of ideologies, planning controversies and the like, because there never was a party controlling it – there were always 4 ALP councillors, but 8 others of various types, from Libs to fiery independents and Greens. The “highlight” of my time of watching the council was when someone bombed the offices (we still don’t know who). That’s a real council barney. I have returned to the district to find it’s a little bit more settled now, but still a vibrant council.
On reflection, what we saw at Marrickville Council last night was a demonstration of what occurs when well meaning councillors step inside a social and political minefield. Similar, to my thinking, to what people saw in the Blue Mountains of days past. People, though, on this occasion, from both sides of the argument turned it into a cause celebre and – in the words of Mayor Fiona Byrne cracked the egg that was their stand with a sledgehammer. The council was really left with no alternative but make it into a principled statement, rather than a practical application. However, in terms of council “scandals”, this one was very low level.
This is why the most absurd part of the Marrickville business was Barry O’Farrell’s threat to remove the council. It was heavy handed and populist, which is a disappointing start to his Premiership. Councils need to be sacked and replaced only if they have proven constant mismanagement of ratepayer funds and / or corruption. And Marrickville Council has done neither. All it wanted to do was make a principled stand, which they discovered might have cost a lot of money – and therefore they backed off. Compare that to the actions of councils that have indeed been sacked or have been been threatened with the sack.
It for this reason I was disappointed that a Labor Councillor like Darcy Byrne in Leichhardt wrote an editorial barking about mismanagement of council funds by the Greens. It smelt of sour grapes and hypocrisy. I think ALP councillors should probably pause and reflect on scandals involving sacked, Labor controlled councils in Wollongong and Liverpool as well as alleged mismanagement in Labor-controlled Blacktown before attacking Green councillors wanting to spending money in their local area on making principled stands. Clr. Byrne also doesn’t mention in his article that the Marrickville Council action was initially supported by ALP councillors on that council. They, too, supported an investigation into making a stand. This is why we have Councillor Mary O’Sullivan from Marrickville Council making this statement on News Radio, which demonstrates a reasonable pragmatism and doesn’t seek to attack the Greens. Indeed, it is commendable that she regrets that the issue became part of the state election campaign.
When I listened to this interview, I could hear the stress in her voice and understand her statement that it was “too big for us to carry” – I heard a similar level of stress in the voice of Mayor Fiona Byrne talking to Adam Spencer. I don’t think any of these good, usually unheard councillors quite knew the storm that was to come.
Perhaps they should run for a seat on the Blue Mountains City Council. Or, perhaps not.
P.S. A really good idea came from the meeting – live tweeting from Herald journalist Jo Tovey. That should happen more often from council meetings, so local ratepayers know what is going on in their council – rather than relying on local newspapers a week later.