Darebin Council Election 2020 - Voter Guide
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
I am an independent community and union activist with a long interest in the workings of Darebin Council and citizen journalism. This blog sets out my opinion of the field of candidates for the 2020 council election and also unpacks several contentious election issues.
Save the Planet
Darebin Victorian Socialists
Beware of the spin...rates, car-parking, Preston Market
Your vote matters
Sixty candidates are standing for election across nine individual wards in Darebin. With the demise of our local print newspaper and the COVID-19 pandemic it is even more challenging than usual to decide how to cast your vote. How can you sort the skilled, committed and knowledgeable candidates from the rest? How have those councillors who are re-nominating performed?
As a keen watcher of our local government, I am happy to share my assessment of the field and hope that it will be of use to fellow residents. What I look for in a candidate is: 1) a deep understanding of and immersion in the local community, including engagement with council, 2) a good progressive policy platform, and 3) the capacity to work cooperatively with others.
This brings me to my first concern: most of the candidates have never asked a question or made a submission at council, lobbied their local councillor about an issue or, with the probable exception of recent weeks, even attended a meeting. They don’t have direct experience of the most concrete difficulty with council governance - the unelected bureaucracy, with its own agendas and entrenched culture, which sits behind a large and complex organisation over which elected councillors have little control.
There are members of seven political parties standing in Darebin with some badged as ‘independents’ and others as endorsed candidates. The Greens and Victorian Socialists have stood endorsed candidates in every seat. There are unendorsed ALP members standing in every seat; in some cases as many as two identifiable candidates. It only takes a very cursory look at the overall field to work out that many of the party-political candidates are inexperienced and are probably only standing because party members asked them to.
There are also clearly some candidates who are standing as ‘Independents’ only with a view of directing preferences rather than trying to win in their own right - what some call feeder candidates, and others less politely, dummy candidates. The community hates this practice and I will do my best to point it out where it is obvious.
For years the Darebin community has railed against the use of feeder candidates in local government elections. I dedicated a blog post to trying to expose several brazen and sophisticated (though sloppily executed) attempts by ALP members to game the 2016 council election using such candidates.
In this election, most of the ALP candidates are again benefiting from feeder candidates. Feeder candidates make the already complex task of choosing a candidate to vote for even more confusing and difficult by inflating the field. I know many committed ALP members who are embarrassed by this practice and who are also disappointed that their candidates are not formally endorsed and therefore accountable to the party.
(A full list of the candidates and their political alignments can be seen here).
There are several worthwhile independent candidates to choose from including current Mayor, Cr Susan Rennie, a public health campaigner with significant board and governance experience, and incumbent Cr Lina Messina who is passionate about the important issues of recycling and waste management. Both have worked constructively throughout their term and are seeking re-election. There’s also a newcomer to the fray, Hugh Morris-Dalton, who is across the issues, appears savvy about working relationships, and wants to enhance Darebin’s engagement with young people. By way of contrast an incumbent councillor seeking re-election, Cr Gaetano Greco, has been fractious and ineffective during his term. I’ll have more to say about other independents in coming weeks.
Right up to a few months ago there was a general expectation that the ALP would have a formal endorsement process for its candidates, together with a properly articulated policy platform ready for the council elections. However, candidate selections appear to have been taken out of the hands of local Branches due to fallout from the Adem Somyurek branch-stacking scandal, and no alternative process was instituted. Lack of formal endorsement has limited their ability to directly engage with and mobilise supporters. The result is that Labor’s overall local government campaign has been left hamstrung and floundering.
Candidates from the Socialist Left faction of the ALP have badged themselves online as ‘Labor Members for Darebin’ and in various ways on campaign materials. At least this means the community knows who they are voting for which is as good as can be expected in the circumstances. LMD has two incumbents who are seeking reelection: Cr Tim Laurence who has been a divisive figure on council; and former ‘independent’, Cr Julie Williams, who has a solid attendance record, rarely contributes to debate, and votes the ‘party line’.
LMD’s campaign slogan is ‘FAIR’ - Fairness, Action, Integrity, with a take-your-pick ‘R’ - Rate Relief, or Respect, or Recovery. What this means in practice is open to interpretation given that these candidates are still canvassing the community for ideas and trying to find common ground. So far they appear to have coalesced around a visionless ‘negative’ campaign for improved service delivery, or what they call, ‘back to basics’.
While Darebin Council could always do better with service delivery its performance across a wide range of indicators, including governance, is similar to or better than comparable councils (see Know Your Council Performance Summary 2018-2019). Council reviewed and upgraded its customer service provision in the previous term and is generally responsive to community inquiries.
LMD’s main ‘positive’ campaign element is around pandemic recovery through the mechanism of bringing together business and community stakeholders to determine what they want done. Relief from Darebin rates, fees and charges seems to underpin this promise, with no analysis of the impact upon council’s budget.
The LMD’s best credentialed candidates are in the South of Darebin. Chiara Lawry, Peter Willis and Emily Dimitriadis have the explicit backing of our popular and highly capable Federal Labor MP in Cooper, Ged Kearney, who has given them credibility by speaking exclusively at their campaign launch. They are effectively running together as a sub-group of close Labor friends who will provide mutual support should they be elected.
That leaves at least two ALP members, Louise Kenney-Shen, her husband Jim Shen, who are representing themselves as ‘independent’ candidates. Louise and Jim (using teal green coloured campaign materials) are standing in wards with LMD candidates and will no doubt swap preferences with them even though they are not factionally aligned. For the sake of transparency to voters they should disclose their party allegiances.
Darebin Greens’ time on the council was temporarily deflated mid-way into their term due to the fallout from Alex Bhathal’s Batman by-election loss, which some members blamed on them. The resultant infighting in the Darebin Branch cost them their highly-regarded asset on council, Darebin’s first Greens Mayor, Cr Kim Le Cerf, who quietly resigned from the party after the controversy died down. However, she continued to work cooperatively in an alliance with her erstwhile party members and independents for the rest of her term allowing them to continue their majority hold on council.
Darebin Greens number the following climate change initiatives among their most important achievements:
Invested to become a carbon neutral council; the redesigned Northcote aquatic centre will not be powered by gas; they have organised 47 councils into a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to switch to renewables; installed solar on the roofs of more than 1000 homes through the Solar Saver program; have initiated a program to turn food waste into green waste; were the first level of government in the world to declare a Climate Emergency, followed by 1787 jurisdictions in 31 countries; they have hosted a Climate Emergency Summit; and brought together 96 councils and the ACT government to form Climate Emergency Australia.
It is this kind of big-picture program which LMD is trying to use to discredit the Greens/Independents in relation to the so-called ‘basics’. But it’s fair to say that it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Greens and their allied Independents turn up to meetings well-prepared (unlike some others) and address issues of community interest on a broad range of fronts.
The standout leader of both their team, and the council as a whole, is Cr Trent McCarthy. He has been ably backed up by current Deputy Mayor, Cr Susanne Newton, though she is far less of an engaged community activist than he is; more of an experienced and solid backstop rather than an initiator of programs. Both are standing for re-election.
Clearly the Greens have been planning their council campaign for some time. They announced their first eight endorsed candidates months in advance, and have run quirky fundraisers and a campaign launch with the full involvement of their support base. They have shaped their campaign around ‘positive’ messaging and are progressively announcing their campaign goals.
The Victorian Greens have announced a policy calling for the revitalisation of local shopping strips across a number of municipalities, which names High Street, Northcote. They have followed up with a more general announcement committing to revitalising all shopping strips in local areas with pop up shops, better street furniture, trees, footpath dining and with support to be embedded in the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions. It builds on their earlier work on the Darebin Active Spaces program. It is a fantastic initiative which everyone can get behind. There are small shopping strips all over Darebin that are in desperate need of a facelift and revitalisation, such as Edwardes Street, Reservoir, as I noted in this post from January this year.
Another big ticket item is the beautification of Darebin’s parks, creeks and streets with 1.5 million indigenous trees, plants and grasses to be planted by 2025. It’s an important policy which would need firm oversight from the new Manager of Parks and Open Space given council’s poor track record in relation to street tree plant selection and park landscape design. They are also looking for sustainable job creation through their Green New Deal.
The Greens agenda is clearly spelled out so you will confidently know what you are getting if you choose to vote for any of their candidates. The Greens’ strongest new candidates are Julie O’Brien and Esther Kennedy - who is standing against incumbent Cr Lina Messina. The Greens are hoping to maintain their gains in the Southern end of the municipality with Tom Hannan, who faces stiff competition from Independent, Hugh Morris-Dalton and LMD candidate, Chiara Lawry.
Save the Planet
Save the Planet was around a long time on the Darebin scene before it became a branch of a registered political party. Its main purpose is to raise issues around the Climate Emergency, and runs its successful local government lobbying through Council Action in the Climate Emergency. Their preferences will go to the Greens as in previous years. Their most viable candidate is Bryony Edwards, who is standing in the North East Ward against LMD incumbent, Cr Tim Laurence. Bryony works in human services and she has credentials which go beyond climate campaigning, most notably in the area of affordable housing.
The Reason Party is standing single candidates across four councils - Darebin, Yarra, Glenn Eira and Moreland. They stand for “...urgent climate action; investment in community services; accessible shared spaces for all; small business recovery; appropriate, sustainable development; and government transparency & accountability.”
Their Darebin candidate, Carmen Latiff-Jenkins has put a lot of hard work into her campaign pledges, which have many elements that are local and relevant. She will be standing in the North West Ward against incumbent independent, Cr Gaetano Greco.
Darebin Victorian Socialists
Victorian Socialists’ explicit goal for the upcoming election is to ‘take over’ Moreland and Yarra Councils in the North of Melbourne, as stated at their 2018 State Election night party (4’50”); at some point it seems that Darebin was added to this list. They are experienced agitators and have a veritable army of members available to deliver their campaign materials. If it wasn’t for the pandemic they would almost certainly have organised door-knocking as well.
Since the State Election they have suffered from their own internal woes with the loss from the party of experienced community-focused elected socialist councillors in Yarra and Moreland. With the departure of Socialist Alliance from their ranks, their party looks very different to the one which almost won an Upper House seat in the 2018 State Election. Victorian Socialists is now dominated by members of Socialist Alternative, which for many years was avowedly against participation in electoral politics. Socialist Alternative does not have a track record for community alliance building and community activism, particularly with people who come from a different perspective.
Darebin Victorian Socialists have good policies around general socialist principles - such as secure and affordable housing and an end to private aged care homes, especially in light of COVID-19 outbreaks in two private aged care facilities in Darebin. They are not alone in sharing these sorts of views, however, these matters are generally under the control of other levels of government.
Even so, the current council resolved last year to turn over one of its car parks to an affordable housing scheme. It also commissioned an independent report into an Age Friendly City which has been welcomed by the ASU; council is progressively implementing the 98 recommendations in the report. It remains to be seen what will happen to Darebin Council’s service provision to elderly residents when federal government block funding ceases in 2022 and council services are placed in direct competition with private providers. We all have a stake in these services being kept out of private hands.
Darebin Victorian Socialists clearly support climate change activism, such as a shift to renewables but don’t have a concrete program of measures that could be taken at council level.
Their lack of local knowledge has left them with a slim set of positions on Darebin-specific issues. They have suddenly discovered the Preston Market campaign and have pledged in all seriousness to stop the selloff of the market to private developers even though the land it stands on is already in private ownership. Victorian Socialists have joined others’ longer standing call to diversify the use of the Northcote Golf Course as parkland/bushland.
They also have no point of differentiation from the current council for their policy to free the refugees from the Mantra Hotel. Darebin Council has already voted to call on the federal government to release the refugees, has offered the refugees various council services such as access to the library and recreational facilities, has rejected a planning application which sought to expand its hotel accommodation potentially to house more refugees, and has gone a step further by calling for a boycott of the hotel.
Darebin Victorian Socialists will need to work harder to gain local knowledge and prove whether they have a capacity to serve the community between elections before they are likely to be serious contenders in single candidate wards.
The Liberal Party member was elected to council in 2012 when it was easier to win in the multi-member ward system. He is unlikely to be re-elected in the current ward structure.
The Liberal Democrats have a single endorsed candidate standing. The party espouses a radical conservative individualism which is wildly out of touch with the progressive values of the Darebin electorate. He is standing in the South West Ward along with virulently anti-Green independent Brian Sangahan, who was banned from attending council meetings for egregious violations of the Governance Local Law in relation to his conduct. It’s unlikely that this duo will gather enough votes between them to claim the seat from incumbent, Cr Trent McCarthy.
Beware of the spin...
Some of the Labor Members for Darebin campaign, especially in the South, bounces off the huge amount disaffection which was caused when council hired a consultant to provide advice on a Darebin-wide car parking strategy. Council’s attempt to systematically address the increasing unavailability of parking in the municipality turned into a complete debacle when a draft car parking policy was released to the public for consultation without the oversight of councillors.
The consultants recommended a 2 hour parking limit within 400 metres of train stations and the length of High Street, which caused justifiable outrage especially among commuters, carers and businesses. Several thousand people self-organised on Facebook, convened public meetings, raised petitions, and hundreds packed a meeting of council to demand its retraction. In record time the proposal was binned.
The sharp lesson which councillors learned from the debacle was to insist that from then on all such draft proposals need to be endorsed at a council meeting before they are released to the public for consultation.
Thus, there is no longer a proposed 2 hour blanket rule for car parking and it would be foolhardy to pursue this again. So why are LMD still campaigning on it? Two LMD members were even party to the original botched consultation process. Everyone on the current council was ultimately responsible for the way that this matter was communicated to the public and the acrimony it generated.
In the absence of a strategic car parking policy the community is left with street-by-street resident surveys of what the parking restrictions should be. This is also unsatisfactory because it means that residents on a group of streets can get together to maximise their car parking opportunities to the disadvantage of others’ access from outlying areas of Darebin.
There is no easy solution to the car parking problems when no one - including the Greens - is prepared to address the densification of our suburbs.
Everyone wants to do whatever they can to make life better for those who are doing it hard in these difficult times of the pandemic, but is ‘rate relief’ really the way to go? Labor Members for Darebin and other Labor members, Victorian Socialists and a number of independents, are all variously promising alterations to rates.
In the Northern end of Darebin, LMD members are explicitly campaigning for no 2% rate rise and a $200 pensioner rate rebate. However, the rate increase has already been approved through the annual council budget processes. (The same decision also approved rate and interest deferrals to eligible applicants in acknowledgment of financial hardship caused by the pandemic.) How would they propose to deliver on this promise to freeze rates when the horse has already bolted? It can’t be done this year and they know it.
It is also a policy where the wealthiest people in our municipality would receive a benefit that is unavailable to anyone else. People who own property portfolios would certainly be thanking them. In absolute terms, a 2% rate rise is quite small for a single household given that it is spread proportionally over all rateable properties in the municipality - most people will hardly notice the difference on their rates notice.
Furthermore, the State Government’s policy of capping rates at no more than 2.5% per annum means that a rate freeze would see this money permanently forgone as there would be no mechanism for catching up the rates down the track.
Labor Party member, and councillor in the City of Greater Dandenong, Sean O’Reilly, has written this helpful blog explaining why not raising rates is a bad idea.
It boggles the mind why Victorian Socialists would be pursuing a “no across the board rate rise” policy. In their own terms, failing to increase rates amounts to middle class welfare. There’s no detail about who would be exempted from rates rises.
Some of the LMD candidates in the Southern end of Darebin have talked about a more targeted approach of rate rebating, citing the process endorsed by Banyule Council - with homeowners and business property owners who are eligible for JobKeeper getting a $500 waiver, and other property owners a $100 waiver. Banyule costed this program at $10.5 million. Yet a program like Banyule’s is not available to many cohorts of residents, including renters and those who cannot access JobKeeper - such as council workers and university employees. No one appears to have costed a similar program for Darebin.
There’s been no discussion about the opportunity cost of losing so many millions of dollars from the council budget. How many council jobs could be lost or how many programs - including community welfare programs - would be discontinued due to this loss in revenue? Keep in mind that Darebin has already invested $11.8 million in a Community and Local Business Resilience and Recovery Package.
Rate relief may be a well-meaning attempt to look after people but it is populist and misguided.