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Struggle for Power in Sutherland Shire
Conflict between and within the Shire's political parties

BEHIND THE TALK of "our beautiful Shire" and "God's own country", a fiercely intolerant struggle for power goes on between the major political parties and also within each of them.

A politically disenchanted community, watching the battles, notes the absurdity of such "party politics" as each of the parties pretends that the other is always wrong or stupid or certain to bring disaster.

What's new? Two thousand years ago Roman historian Livy declared: "The struggle between parties is and will always remain a worse misfortune for the people than war, famine, plague or other manifestation of God's wrath."

Most of the Shire's 140,000 voters would probably agree that "the party-conflict game" hasn't changed much. Less apparent to the voters is the "inner-party-conflict game", the battle between factions and individuals within each party. Seldom are selfless ideals at the bottom of it all, but rather an ego-driven reaching for power and/or spoils of office.

Factions? The Labor Party has always been tagged with factionalism but, says the Herald's Michelle Grattan, "You think the Labor Party is factionalised? Meet the NSW Liberals!" (SMH, 21.7.00). She refers to the Liberals' bitter factional warfare between "Right" and "Left" to gain ascendancy on their State Council (local former MP Ron Phillips on the losing Left side) (Sun-Herald, 23.7.00).

Disenchantment with parties

"People don't trust the major parties any more," says the most successful NSW independent MP Tony Windsor (SMH, 13.5.00) - 72 per cent of Tamworth electors voted for this ex-National.

The mistrust isn't limited to Australian politics; it is part of a worldwide trend which accompanies the thrust towards globalisation and economic rationalism.

For Australia, this can be dated from 1983 when Federal Labor introduced the "financial deregulation" which ended traditional protectionist policies and opened Australia to cheap imports (a policy the Liberals later applauded).

A surge of economic activity did follow, but its benefits have been very unequally shared. The vast majority of Australians feel less than happy with their post-eighties quality-of-life, believing life has become more stressful, more unequal, more selfish.

The rich have grown conspicuously richer, the poor are just a little better-off than before, while "the material condition of the broad Australian middle-class has remained stagnant" (SMH, 26.6.00).

That large and largely dissatisfied middle-class is the volatile element in Australia's politics! It feels insecure, anxious as to the future, without hope that automation and the computer revolution - which were to have delivered affluence and leisure - will do anything more than quicken the disturbing forces of change.

The crumbling of the parties?

In the twenty years since about 1980 a big change has come over Australian (and Shire) politics.

Its effects have shown up dramatically in the 1990s: seemingly secure governments have been savaged by disenchanted electors. Examples: the near defeat of the NSW Greiner Liberals in 1991, the surprise rejection of Queensland's Goss Labor Government in 1995, the angry rejection of Keating's Federal Labor in 1996, and the massive rejection of the Victorian Kennett Liberals in 1999. "Incredible voter volatility!" choruses the media. "Whichever party is in office will be voted down."

The disenchantment has taken a heavy membership toll of the parties themselves. An acute observer, Paul Sheehan, declared: "The grassroots of the major political parties are withering away. [and this leaves] a new great divide in Australia between the governors and governed" (SMH, 13.5.00). The Labor Party, he said, is no longer a "working class" party of "mass" proportions but has shrunk to a "political club"; and "Howard's party is dying. Literally dying", with two-thirds of Liberal members in NSW aged 65 or over - thus, also a club (its statewide numbers reported to have declined in just the past two years from 12,000 to 8,000: SMH, 26.7.00).

Confirming these trends, Ian Marsh of the Australian Graduate School of Management says: "Twenty years ago, political party identification was very strong, about 90 per cent. Now it is down to half that, about 46 per cent" (SMH, 15.7.00). In plain terms, no longer can it be said that roughly half of the electorate is "rusted on" to Labor and Liberal respectively.

Parties in the Shire

In Sutherland Shire, Labor has a dozen branches and Liberal a score. Of lesser parties, Shire Watch Independents, new since the 1999 Council election, has a viable executive (amounting to a branch?), while the Democrats, Greens and One Nation have all had difficulty establishing a branch structure.

Each of the Shire's major parties has roughly six to seven hundred members on the books. By the testimony of some members, only a quarter or less of these members regularly attend branch meetings, and of that quarter, very few are active in community organisations such as precinct committees.

What this means is that the downward slide of the major parties from "mass organisations" to "clubs" has starkly reduced their representative character. Can either of them any longer be said to convincingly represent about half of the broad community? Definitely not.

Labor Party and Liberal Party, whether at local, state or federal level, having long since lost touch with the core ideals of their founders, have devolved into rival management teams intent chiefly on winning elections. While each looks to a somewhat different traditional electorate (lower incomes; upper incomes) each experiences increasing difficulty in producing distinctive policies (thus, for the GST: it was proposed first by Lab, bitterly opposed by Lib; dropped by Lab, taken up by Lib and opposed by Lab; dropped by Lib after electoral rejection and then, after promising never to introduce it, taken up again by Lib in a moment of post-Keating Lab weakness, and bitterly opposed by Lab). Tweedledum and Tweedledee policies in the eyes of disenchanted voters. Who can we look up to, who can we trust?

Lacking fundamental policy difference, each party now tends to concentrate exclusively on short-term issues - the next election's hopeful vote-winners - and makes strident attacks on its opponent's stupidity and irresponsibility. Longterm interests of the Shire are the loser.

Try this test: If you know a member of either of the parties, ask what the party's policy is and how it differs from its opponent's. You are guaranteed an angry denunciation of the opponent but little enlightenment as to a distinctive policy.

Acute conflict in Council

Shire electors tend to show little interest in their MPs: Federal issues are relatively remote for them (except health and taxation), and only a few State issues are relatively important (transport, education, planning). But nearly all Municipal issues are close to residents - the "hands on", "nitty-gritty", "my street and neighbourhood" stuff of Council. It's the reason residents don't want "politicians" in local government (if they suspect a councillor of having parliamentary ambitions they deal out electoral punishment). They want their councillors to be "stewards of our local environment".

Residents deplore the "bearpit" clashes between parties on the floor of Council. They sense that as policy differences have declined, there is increasing resort to party-animosity and personal attacks. "Very many of the issues that come before Council," says a former Shire President (the title is now Mayor), "don't lend themselves to party politics; they are simply pro-and-con problems that call for objective judgement by all councillors; but the obvious tendency of the present and the previous Council is to politicise nearly everything in the interest of gaining a party advantage."

The numbers, since the 1999 municipal election, are 5 Labor Party, 4 Liberal Party, 4 Shire Watch Independents Party, and one Labor-leaning and one Liberal-leaning Independent: 15 councillors in all. The decisive anti-overdevelopment vote in the last election, which swept the 1995-9 Liberal Council from office, led to election of a Labor Mayor (Ken McDonell) on the supporting votes of the strongly anti-overdevelopment Shire Watch Independents Party, which has maintained a cordial working relationship with Labor on that issue.

As the September mayoral election approaches, the two major parties, Liberal and Labor are buzzing with speculation that comes down to - guess what? - party politics, how to gain maximum electoral advantage for the party, by either manipulating or attacking the minor party, Shire Watch Independents.

Labor, having secured the Mayoralty in 1999 (Clr Ken McDonell), obviously wants re-election. That may be denied it at the September 4th election by the Shire Watch councillors who voted with Labor last time - they may "want a turn". In which case Labor may have to settle for Deputy Mayor, conceding the Mayoralty to Shire Watch in the interests of keeping Labor's main enemy, the Liberals, out of office.

The Liberals, seeing no chance themselves of getting elected, will welcome removal of their main enemy, Labor, from the mayoral chair; they will then strive to make the position of the inexperienced Shire Watch mayor as difficult as possible, discrediting in this and other ways their secondary enemy, Shire Watch, alleging it to be the ally ('stooge') of the Labor Party.

The position of the Shire Watch Party will not be easy. Starting idealistically as Independents, they discovered that the electoral system is contrived to favour parties (e.g. in funding) and so they formed themselves into a party, not realising that this would create the potential for factions to form - after all, "independent" means "not belonging to or supported by a party" (Oxford). So two opposed tendencies spring to life: one wanting to vote by individual conscience, without party direction; the other wanting to put party discipline ahead of conscience voting. Historically, factionalism has everywhere been inherent in parties.

Party politics all the way! Electoral advantage before other considerations! Shire interests the loser?

What political behaviour would the Shire community be likely to approve?

Reform of a party, let alone the party-system, is notoriously difficult - "like building a house of cards in a gale-force wind", said a frustrated Liberal reformer recently (SMH, 5.6.00). Yet the case is strong for such reform, not least to restore today's sagging faith in democratic institutions. So, speaking here only of the municipal level of politics :
  • End the mindless opposing of whatever the rival party proposes.

  • End "bearpit" wrangling on Council which precludes reasoning.

  • Urge each party to publicise a comprehensive policy for Shire betterment well ahead of an election, covering green/marine/urban/welfare issues.

  • All parties to agree to pursue remedies for overdevelopment and traffic congestion, the Shire's two most clearly universal issues.

  • All parties to speak up for the ideal of civic duty, to campaign openly for members, and, in the interests of the community's political education, to hold periodic public policy meetings.

  • Encourage all party members to be active in at least one community organisation. · Encourage Independents to value a responsible balance-of-power role in "keeping the parties honest".

  • Require councillors to sit in the chamber not in party groups but in ward groups (five groups of three) to emphasise ward-responsibility over party solidarity.
But can the parties reform?

This is a worldwide issue at present. Here's the voice of an American conservative, Arianna Huffington, declaring that, if they can't, then ".it's going to happen by a movement of aroused citizens saying. 'Enough is enough'. There has to be a fundamental change." (SMH, 22.7.00) That's conservative radicalism!

Footnote. The Liberals' only state MP in the Shire, Malcolm Kerr (Cronulla), under pressure from within the party to quit at the next election, says "My problem is that I've never been a factions player, so every time either the Left or the Right wants to increase their MP numbers, one of the wheelers and dealers sees Cronulla as a way of doing a deal and starts dropping the word that Kerr could go." He declares that he won't oblige. (SMH, 26.7.00)