Citizens, Arise!

The local is core to meaningful democracy

In a world in which democracy is in trouble, the Victorian government has opened the door on a reform that could see a revival of democracy at the grassroots level. But only if people seize the opportunity.

The Local Government Act 2020 does nothing less than allow the overturning of the managerialist revolution that in the 1990s saw more than a hundred councils disbanded in Victoria alone. The same process occurred across much of Australia, with giant corporatised constructs amalgamating smaller local councils. It initiated a growing disconnect between councils and their constituent communities. The new municipalities were not cities in the old sense: they often had no meaningful centre, and ward boundaries no longer reflected coherent neighbourhoods. People did not feel that these ‘cities’ belonged to them, nor that they belonged to the cities. 

Managerialism saw a ratepayer model replace the citizen model, while the doctrine of competitive neutrality restrained public enterprise and state-imposed rate caps limited councils’ incomes—and therefore their power. The balanced budget—a stalking horse for small government—became the norm. With reduced representation and increased responsibilities, a systemic imbalance developed between amateur councillors and professional managers. 

For a quarter of a century this has been the largely unquestioned way of running local government in Victoria. The diminished democracy that resulted was justified in terms of the efficiencies it was supposed to deliver. But while the democracy deficit became increasingly apparent, the promise of large gains in efficiency was never realised. 

The new Victorian Act—unique in Australia—paves the way for the restoration of citizenship by mandating a level of engagement unashamedly described as participatory democracy. It places community engagement at the core of municipal governing. Ratepayers are out, citizens are back.

The language of the Act is so declamatory of the virtues of city-based participatory democracy that had it been drafted by Murray Bookchin or David Harvey we would not be surprised. Yet it is not a theory-driven exercise but the result of a four-year consultation with municipalities across the state. This strongly suggests that the theory is consonant with ordinary thinking. The popular receptivity is confirmed by the attention being paid to successful experiments elsewhere, such as the citizen takeover of Frome local council in the United Kingdom. In his Flatpack Democracy booklets Peter Macfadyen, one of the Frome activists, while personally inspired by Bookchin, mentions him only once in passing. Rather than theory, he offers an amiable set of simple instructions for reinventing local politics by releasing neighbourhood power. The often paralysing gap between theory and practice dissolves in common sense.

The Act requires councils to plan around a 10-year community vision. An overarching principle of the new Act is that ‘the community is to be directly engaged in strategic planning and strategic decision making’. Prior to forming a vision and a plan, council will be required to develop a community-engagement policy and, crucially, that policy must itself be developed in consultation with the community. This offers a point of entry for citizens in defining the democratic process. The Act does not prescribe what deliberative engagement practices are, but the supporting document suggests that a broad interpretation should be applied.

While the notion of a community vision remains undefined—there are references to strategic directions related to planning and finance—there is no limit to what it might entertain. It is in that vagueness that its potency lies for a radical rethinking of cities. The emphasis on a vision is an invitation to think in an imaginative way about the future of the city, the town, the suburb. It lays down ends for which means must then be found by council. By using the term ‘vision’ the framers of the Act are—consciously or not—invoking the idea of the city as an ethical zone where the values that drive policy are made explicit. 

The Act redefines the role of councillors: they must lead strategically rather than focusing on operational issues. The strategy they apply must reflect the vision. So, by defining the terms of engagement, then laying down a comprehensive vision and a clear plan, an assertive community will be able to strategically direct its council. No longer will that depend on the hope that councillors will keep their election promises. The Act also mandates citizen juries to consider specific matters. Such juries have previously been employed by some councils on a voluntary basis, but the new law universalises their use.

The Victorian Act goes far beyond the UK Local Government Act under which the Frome experiment was technically possible but was neither anticipated nor intended. Unlike in the United Kingdom, the citizen-engagement process in Victoria is a major element of the reform, and the findings of Victorian assemblies and juries will be binding on a council.

Some communities did not wait on legislation. Citizens in Mallacoota in South Gippsland who are part of a mega-shire that has its centre a distant 400 kilometres away in Leongatha have proposed their own local plan and have created a citizens’ jury to develop a vision for the immediate region. In New South Wales Jess Scully, the deputy mayor of Sydney and author of Glimpses of Utopia, is strongly promoting citizen-led democracy there. Melbourne City has also been experimenting. The Victorian Act may be an outlier now, but citizen democracy is certainly becoming a thing.

We do not expect a state government to be ahead of critical thinking, so how does this reform square with revolutionary thinkers such as Bookchin and Harvey? In The Next Revolution Bookchin says that libertarian municipalism changes not only the content but also the form of politics, transforming politics from its current lowly status as what reviled politicians do to us into a new paradigm in which politics is something we, as fully engaged citizens, do for ourselves, thus reclaiming democratic control over our own lives and communities.

While there is a remarkable degree of consonance between the Act and the theory, both Bookchin and Harvey look to larger implications for capitalism and climate action. Bookchin argues that none of the anti-capitalist ideologies of the past retain the same relevance they had in an earlier stage of capitalism and in an earlier period of technological advance. Crucially, it is the municipality, not the nation, that becomes the ethical space for the good life. Politics, he says, should be conceived as primarily taking place in the civic arena. The municipality is the appropriate space for the actualisation of our social potentialities.

Communalism seeks to recapture the meaning of politics in its most emancipatory and most immediate sense and this is best accomplished—possibly only accomplished—by conceptualising the municipality as a transformative development. It will be workers of all sorts, acting freely as citizens concerned for the common good, who as the producers of the city will deliver the desired future. 

Bookchin would have been astonished by the Victorian development because he expected the state to resist all attempts to replace professionalised power with popular power. Communalists, he insisted, do not contend that a communalist society can be legislated into existence. He saw it as part of an ongoing struggle. And yet here in a postcolonial corner of the Global South this is precisely what is happening. The explanatory notes to the Act state:

Many citizens now want a stronger voice in shaping their community’s future. Community support for and involvement in consultation is only likely to intensify in coming years as technological advances provide a greater range of tools to enable engagement across a broader audience in each municipality.

In Rebel Cities David Harvey also identifies the city as the locus of social production, the space where as citizens (the producers of the city) we are able to transform life into what we desire. He insists that the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. It follows that the right to change and reinvent the city is fundamental to social progress. The city—not the nation nor the state—is the context in which people reproduce daily life. In Victoria we have come to understand this viscerally during the COVID lockdown: a common good, supported directly by citizens and dependent on their agreement, has transformed daily life in ways with the potential to permanently change the way Melburnians live. This transformative pattern is being repeated across the world.

As the capacity for participation diminishes rapidly with larger sizes of administrative unit, the municipality is offered as the ideal site for democratic practice. A common criticism is that while citizens’ assemblies may work in small municipalities, they are not suited to mega-cities because of scale. Yet assemblies at neighbourhood or ward level can be effectively organised within the shell of existing behemoths. The old towns, cities and suburbs that were buried under amalgamation are still there as loci of identity and common interest. For example, people do not live in the amalgamated ‘City’ of Port Phillip but in its old suburbs such as Port Melbourne, South Melbourne, St Kilda and so on. While citizenship has been located at the national level, the ludicrous attempts to impose on migrants a meaningful Australian identity prove increasingly absurd. No citizenship test will generate an active democratic citizenry. It is a farce. But we do identify readily with our neighbourhoods.

Yale academic Hélène Landemore, a proponent of ‘open democracy’, directs attention to the role of ‘mini-publics’—little assemblies of anywhere from a hundred and fifty to a thousand. These would not replace existing forms of governance but would operate upon them. The COVID experience sharpens the spatial element as well. Adelaide planning academic Stefanie Dühr says the rediscovering of neighbourhoods during lockdown provides an opportunity to rethink how Australian cities are structured. Her view that the ‘spatial structure of Australian capital cities was not sustainable’ offers a geographical parallel to their weak democratic structure. 

Locating democracy primarily in the city and not in the nation provokes a reconsideration of democracy itself. Socialists have historically had an equivocal relationship with democracy because democracy has often been viewed instrumentally. Democracy is not the primary aim of socialism nor, in its totalitarian forms, necessary to it, any more than democracy is the primary aim of the environmental movement. Both anti-capitalism and action on global heating can be advanced by authoritarian means. A persistent challenge for environmentalists is the spectacle of an authoritarian China proving more effective in meeting carbon-emission targets than Western democracies. If the ultimate aim is saving the planet, and democracy is only considered as a means and not as an end in itself, it follows that it may have to be sacrificed for the greater good of the earth. In a rapidly deteriorating context, that is a real danger to democracy. 

It is therefore significant that Extinction Rebellion advocates for citizens’ assemblies as an essential component of climate action. And Bookchin, Harvey and Macfadyen are all very much motivated by the environmental crisis, seeing an empowered democracy movement as essential to dealing with ecological catastrophe. But the dilemma remains: what if some other mechanism were more effective? 

There is no way around this dilemma so long as we hold to an instrumentalist defence of democracy. The only way through is to hold democracy valuable in itself. It is at the local level that the most compelling case for this can be made. Local democracy is less a political ideal than a lived experience that depends upon the equality of all residents and workers as citizens. That regard for others is the basis for all other forms of equality. We know how chauvinistic propaganda about ‘values’ at the national level rings hollow because it bears no relation to how people actually live. But ‘a fair go’ does make sense at the local level in readily apparent ways, rooted in respectful and considerate neighbourliness. 

Material inequality and social injustice are immediately apparent at the local level. Abstruse rationalisations of inequality lose their potency in the face of local immediacy. Seeing homelessness on our own streets moves us; reading about housing policy does not. At the local level, economic double-talk loses its magical power to deny the obvious: tax cuts bring service cuts, full stop. In local politics subsidising childcare and social housing are not items in an economic debate but community issues. 

Bookchin and Harvey argue that the city—or more generically the municipality—must be recognised as an ethical, aesthetic and intellectual space. The first two attributes may be readily accepted, but there remains a reluctance by many to view the local as an appropriate space for intellectual work. Perhaps the stage is too small. Or perhaps it is because at the local level there is much less opportunity to avoid the moral imperative to act as well as to think.

We cannot directly defend democracy globally; we can only do so locally. Everywhere in the world, scepticism is directed at national politics. Representative parliaments are so suborned by corporations and billionaires that they are universally losing respect. And so we are coming back to the city, the suburb and the neighbourhood as sites where democracy can grow from below. The first and last defence of democracy is in the street where we live. 

Enhanced citizen engagement may be mandated under the Victorian Local Government Act, but it is to be expected that many councils will attempt to preserve their hegemony and merely tick the boxes. It is up to citizens to make sure that the potential of the reforms is realised. Participatory democracy depends on a favourable view of the capacity of people to act as citizens in discovering a common interest. That this is more than a valiant hope is supported by Elinor Ostrom’s findings on the capacity of people to jointly and rationally decide mutual benefit. Her research repudiates the rational-actor theory that has underpinned a neoliberalism where the common good is reduced to the sum total of the private goods of discreet individuals. Couple Ostrom’s findings with Rutger Bregman’s optimistic view of human nature and the common good is getting a new run.

Bookchin and Harvey expected that achieving citizen democracy would be a slow grind. But not only has the Victorian legislation propelled it forward, the retreat to the neighbourhood caused by the COVID lockdown brings community sharply into focus. Despite the complaints and weariness, there has been widespread acceptance of the need for codependence between citizens and government. COVID has upended the previously imagined limits to what is possible politically and economically. To that we should add a refreshed interest in democracy. Coming at a time when we are being asked to imagine what sort of society we want when we emerge from COVID (and even if we never fully do), citizens’ assemblies provide a means for shaping that future. They are what Ursula Le Guin calls a methodology of how to get control of where we’re going. 

But it won’t happen unless we citizens make it happen.

About the author

Bill Garner

Bill Garner is a playwright and historian. He is a member of the citizen activist group Progressive Port Phillip.

More articles by Bill Garner

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