Should councils take a stand on issues that are in the national political discourse? Many argue it is not a local government’s place to wear political colours on its sleeve or agitate other levels of government for change.
The uproar that resulted from Yarra City Council’s decision to stop referring to January 26 as ‘Australia Day’ is a case in point.
The response was extreme. People reacted as if council bureaucrats were going to swoop past neighbourhood barbeques to whisk Australian flags from people’s hands and upend picnic tables laden with snags and potato salad.
Really though, the council just voted to retract any mention of ‘Australia Day’ in its official notation and to host a ‘culturally sensitive’ event instead of a celebration or citizenship ceremony.
A political statement, yes, but the fact this got so many knickers in a twist (not least of all Malcolm Turnbull’s, whose minister promptly cancelled Yarra’s citizenship ceremony rights) meant the statement had a much larger impact than if it had simply been allowed to happen without fanfare.
The vitriol from the Federal Government stems from the fact that this does set a precedent for other councils, but, deeper than that, it oversteps the mark of how Federal Government sees its local counterparts – as mere service facilitators that should remain compliant and apolitical on national issues.
At the NGA earlier this year, a motion was passed that encouraged councils to advocate to change the Australia Day date.
But at its board meeting in July, ALGA distanced itself from the decision, saying that it was a matter for individual councils and their communities and if councils wanted to take action, they could simply lobby their local Federal Member.
The City of Yarra argues it has consulted its local population and its ‘January 26’ decision is in line with the broad sentiment of the area (which is located in the inner-Melbourne suburbs that are well known for tilting to the left).
Consultation involved a 300-person survey and talks with local indigenous groups. Whether this constitutes an in-depth enough canvassing of a population of over 80,000 is questionable, but the Council argues 78.6 per cent of community members supported the decision and many have since applauded the council’s actions.
Many councils have also asserted their position on marriage equality in light of the current debate. Support is not just isolated to inner-city areas: Across the map councils have voted to back the ‘yes’ campaign. (Bayswater (WA), Douglas (Qld), Ballarat (Vic), Darwin (NT) are just a few examples of those in support.)
Some have come under scrutiny for this choice. But, each council has come to this conclusion after the due process of community consultation, debate and council vote.
If you think of local government as the third tier of government, representative of the views of its local constituency: Why shouldn’t councils be able to make a stand on issues of national importance?
As long as councils are thoroughly consulting their community and acting as true representatives of the broad beliefs in their areas, they should be able to reflect this in their decision-making as they see fit.