As an expert in conflict strategy and mediator and as someone who has run for local government twice, I see this issue from multiple sides.
One of the biggest issues with the local government system is the election process – it needs reform.
There is increasing evidence the current election process elevates people who are fixated on power or a polarising agenda rather than professionals with the skills and expertise to participate in complex decision-making.
We are seeing the results of personality clashes, poor decision making, a lack of trust and minimal accountability – it creates dysfunctional teams.
Take for example what happened at the City of Melville. In 2018, the state government conducted an inquiry after 300 complaints had been made about the council in the preceding three years.
In 2019, reports emerged of factional ‘warfare’ and personality clashes getting in the way of good decision-making.
Complaints investigated concluded a lack of transparency, poor community engagement and deep division. Navigating complex decisions is always hard but if your team is also divided, governing for the future can become rife with conflict.
Then there’s the report into the City of Perth. It highlighted among other things a factionalised and divided council whose lack of trust, self-interest and power-driven antics led to poor governance practices.
The report states: “In their own words, there was ‘defensiveness’, ‘stonewalling’; ‘dishonesty/anxiety/no leadership’, ‘butt-covering’, ‘attacking’, ‘self-centred’, ‘no accountability’; and ‘game playing’.”
Despite the review and update of the Local Government Act, the dysfunction of some of our councils continues to absorb an enormous proportion of time from the WA Local Government Association and the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries with state government intervention in multiple local councils in WA.
So where is all this conflict coming from?
My theory is, the polarisation we see in broader society today is playing out in local government.
Having run in two previous elections, unsuccessfully, I have learnt first-hand that the election experience can be toxic.
The people with the skills and expertise required of the role don’t normally have time to pitch social media battles.
More importantly, we also know that the blame game doesn’t create solutions, it just makes more problems. The cost-benefit analysis of time versus potential positive outcome weighs too heavily towards it not being worth it.
Into this void emerges the charismatic personality, who agrees with the disenfranchised, validates their fears and blames the ‘other’.
It is so much easier to be polarising rather than doing the work of collaboration.
People don’t have to deal with the nuances, complexities and messiness of life when the charismatic leader simplified the fight.
In October, the next mayor of the City of Perth will be elected.
Of the six mayoral candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring, three are from media, one is a coworking space business owner, one is an architect and one is a retired children’s court magistrate.
While they might have a wealth of experience in their chosen fields, are they really experienced enough to manage the City of Perth?
Perhaps more importantly, how are we helping the people make an informed decision about who is right for the City?
This election shouldn’t be about charm offensive, it needs to be about establishing integrity and trust.
The stakes are high and the burden of responsibility for whomever wins the role will be enormous.
Without the right leader at the top, the culture and governance changes which are so desperately needed will likely stall.
Worse still, a slide towards polarising and charismatic leadership will only exacerbate the fragile trust the public has in this institution and our communities will be the ones who lose the most.
The responsibilities placed on councillors requires a depth of capacity, experience and integrity.
If people are becoming part of the problem not the solution then perhaps it is time we consider appointing people to the roles of councillors.
Or maybe even a blended model of representation where ‘elected’ members are joined by ‘appointed’ members, such as the state appointed board positions across the state. They do this to ensure skills, diversity and capacity needs are met.
The red flags are mounting, the warning signs are there. What we see emerging in the local council space is the consequences of a system unable to innovate and adjust to modern decision-making standards.
Sarah Blake is a conflict strategist and mediator.