The ‘Little Platoons’ of Local Government

My new home town of Lismore, NSW, has a new deputy-mayor.  Naturally she appeared for the local media festooned with a rainbow flag of considerable proportions.  After all, Lismore is decidedly rainbow country, what with its own rainbow pedestrian crossing, being a mere stone’s throw from Nimbin, served by such memorable rags as the Byron Bay Echo and featuring political commentary from an ageing yet forever left-tilting Mungo MacCallum.

But it isn’t just Lismore.  Local councils across the length and breadth of this wide brown land – and we have, alas, around 650 of them – go in for rainbow stunts and climate catastrophism, whatever the views of their long suffering ratepayers.  I guess this saves them from thinking too much about financial black holes (see also under “Lismore”) and the pathetic state of the local roads.  Driving up my barely paved street is akin to riding a wild bronco.

Local councils love making statements, whether about climate emergencies or other matters of local non importance. 

The Shire of Augusta-Margaret in Western Australia is but one local government area (LGA) that has succumbed without too much pressure to the antics of the now infamous and grotesquely annoying mite from Sweden. Shire President Pam Townsend opines:

I am sick of hearing facile arguments about how climate change is not the business of local government.

People who argue against local government taking on lobbying and action around climate are living in a previous century.

Ah yes, the “this is the twenty-first century” gambit.  Pam was responding to young Maia, a local protester, who even mentioned that other favourite phrase, obviously learned from her progressive betters, “the right side of history”.  The ill-informed woke are famous for their usage of inappropriate and irrelevant grand phrases.  One can only wonder how much history young Maia has read.  Or indeed Shire Prez Pam.

In this context, one well might remember the episode of Yes, Prime Minister and the memorable (1980s) words of the local mayor – “The Borough of Thames Marsh has no quarrel with the Soviet Union.” (that episode’s plot is detailed here)

One may well consider that Australia’s federation is poorly served by its “failed States”. Yet what to make of our local councils, of which many have been enlarged, often forcibly and unaccountably by various governments (Kennett, Beattie, Baird)?  Why anyone would want to give these self-important clowns more ratepayer money to play with and much larger jurisdictions has always been beyond me.  Yet, whatever their size and financial reach, how well served are we by our supposedly most democratic (closest to the people) elected bodies?

Two cases will suffice to demonstrate the nasty habits that local councils have of making the papers for all the wrong reasons.  And these don’t even need to touch the passing parade of corrupt councillors done in by ICAC or IBAC, or the seedy local politics associated with developer donations, or the various “fact finding study tours” overseas, or the “sister city” scams, or the tendentious claptrap associated with sea level “rise” that forces residents in seaside locations to spend thousands of dollars on chimeric threats when they wish to renovate.

Case One.  As recently as last week the Sydney press alerted readers to the generosity of salary packages paid to general managers – the more vain ones give themselves a name change, to “chief executive”.  In reality, they are all, or at least they once were, simply “shire clerks”.  In name and in function. (editor’s note: follow the link in this tweet to get around the News Corp paywall)

The average Sydney GM takes home a far-from-modest $382,000.  As was the case with the corporatisation of state governments – who were, bizarrely, enraptured by 1980s-style new public management theory – first under Nick Greiner and Gary Sturgess in New South Wales, the corporatisation of councils has led inexorably to the doubling of salaries without the remotest accompanying increase in the quality of the officeholders.

As the Tele points out:

The most highly paid was Inner West Council GM Rik Hart whose total package was $486,990 — topping NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s $407,980 pay packet and just $62,000 short of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s.

And while normal workers have endured years without a wage rise, council bureaucrats have enjoyed big hikes over the past decade — Strathfield GM Henry Wong’s package was $206,092 higher than in 06-07 while Camden Council’s GM pocketed $353,625, a rise of $121,625, and the City of Fairfield GM received $443,852, an increase of $164,437 in nine years.

Ms Berejiklian might envy Northern Beaches Council chief Ray Brownlee’s whopping $457,554.91 salary before tax in the 12 months to June 30 2018. The council also forked out a $613,005.62 termination payment for the previous CEO and currently pays its three directors a total $1.07 million.

Case Two is Paul Pisasale, until relatively recently the much-feted mayor of Ipswich, the mover and shaker who almost single-handedly changed the image of “Two Head City” (according to the many who sang his praises) to that of a bustling, dynamic, go ahead place with an economy to match.  Think of all the local council strategy documents’ buzz words – vibrant, progressive, inclusive, open for business – and you have the modern Ipswich.  Local councils up and down the country swore that “if only” they could have Pisasale as mayor they, too, would become “economic powerhouses”.  Everyone has a Pisasale story.  I saw him in action twice at conferences, once where the technology worked and one (in country Victoria with a decidedly reserved audience) where it didn’t.  Oh dear.  He came to earth fast.

Now he has come to earth even faster,  and for reasons other than the failure of technology at a conference podium, having been sentenced to two years behind bars on extortion charges after being caught galloping around airports with a satchel full of cash.  Perhaps our deluded national legislators had him in mind when they began a process to limit cash transactions.  The image of Pisasale at his unfortunate presser, clad in pyjamas as he asked reporters to believe it was ill health, not scandal, forcing his resignation, spoke of a fall from grace almost unmatched in Australian political history.

While there is still a process to be gone through with Pisasale’s legal situation, his dramatic fall does indicate something at the heart of the local government problem: clueless hubris and the fear local politicians seem to have of simply and humbly doing the boring stuff of attending to local government’s traditional Three Rs — rates, roads and rubbish. It is much more satisfying to declare a preening solidarity with the people of Tibet and fly their flag outside the council offices. How much comfort Blue Mountains Council’s gesture (below) gives the residents of Lhasa as they contend with the Chinese occupation has yet to be established.

Paul is merely the most egregious example of a common disease and it went to his head.  He thought he was important.  He came to believe his own hype, so encased had he become in the adulation bestowed by admirers for “transforming” a city.  The fiction that local politicians can transform their regions, suburbs and cities is thoroughly entrenched, unfortunately.  Perhaps worse is the belief that they should even attempt this, that it is part of the job description.  This fiction is partly sustained by central governments who forever sing the praises of locally driven development, despite themselves knowing deep down that it is, indeed, a fiction.

Pisasale might have been dubbed, once upon a time, Australia’s Mayor.  That term indeed has international currency.  Mayors, both good (New York’s Rudi Giuliani) and atrocious (New York’s Bill de Blasio) notoriously get above themselves and run for higher office, typically without the results they think are owed.  Rudi was even dubbed the “mayor of America” in a vain attempt further to burnish his credentials.  And Rudi was a very, very successful mayor, of the world’s city, no less.  Now we have “Mayor Pete” from South Bend, Indiana, gay America’s favourite mayor.  Oh dear.  If only Gay Pete held an important job as well as having the correct (Democrat) views.  In the UK, woeful specimens such as Sadiq Khan, Mayor of Londonistan, think they are sufficiently well equipped to take on visiting US presidents.

Why does Australia get such awful councils?  They are bloated, they are ludicrously and inappropriately woke (and so, unrepresentative of their constituents), they don’t do their day jobs, they are self-important, they meddle in things that are none of their proper concern, they do poorly things (like community development and economic development) with which they have no business being involved, they are often menacing fascists, their senior staff are grossly over-paid gauleiters.  Their squalid performance almost makes one sympathetic to that otherwise hideous display of state government bullying known as “rate pegging“. And yet, in theory at any rate, we invest almost de Tocquevillian faith in the level of government that is billed as “closest to the people”.  In doing so, we place trust in their capacity to deliver the services required by those people to whom they are thought to be close.

According to Robert Gannett:

Alexis de Tocqueville learned the lesson of a lifetime when he travelled to America in the early 1830s: political life in the local town is an indispensable catalyst for both creating and sustaining a successful democracy.

The Catholic Church, no less, has as a core social teaching the principle of “subsidiarity”, an entirely plausible and even noble principle expounded by the Church since Leo XIII.  This is that government should be devolved to the lowest level appropriate to addressing public issues.  Subsidiarity, on one definition:

… is an organising principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.

Decentralisation of power from the centre to the periphery is, as well, a core principle of classical liberalism.  Equally noble in its intent to that of the Catholic notion of subsidiarity.  It just doesn’t seem to work in Australia. (Maybe it doesn’t work anywhere).   How did this happen?

Local councils are part of that mess of Australian politics otherwise known as vertical fiscal imbalance.  The lack of codified powers for councils and the absence of real tax-gathering power – the latter of which is extant in the United States and which enforces, at least to a greater extent than in Australia, financial accountability.  When the dosh comes from other than local taxpayers, the games of pass the buck commences and accountability goes out the window.  Australian governments are past masters at “unfunded mandates” whereby new responsibilities are passed down to councils without central governments giving them the resources to implement the new requirements.  The result is a truly horrifying maze of regulation and documentation that make the eyes glaze over.  So the poor quality of local government isn’t helped by shovelling onto them tasks for which they are often poorly equipped.

Then there is the unusual management structure of councils.  Councils are run by planners, human resources blow-ins and management types.  The latter love restructures, reducing “direct reports” and adding in multiple tiers of management (consequent upon reducing said direct reports).  The planners who rise to middle management understand little other than planning, yet they end up involved in things like economic development, urban design and community development for which they are notoriously ill-equipped. 

To planners, remembering hammers and nails, every local community problem can be sorted by more planning.  By their natures, planners tilt left, at least the ones who go into local government where they generally work to stop things getting done, rather than enabling them.  Just about every planner exiting an Australian university worships the gods of new urbanism, hates cars and thinks that the solution to everything is light rail.  Or bicycle paths and lanes.  They also endlessly use words like “vibrant” and think a local community successful if there is hubbub at street level.  They call attempts to achieve this “activation”.

And we haven’t even got to discussing the potential for sleaze and both serious and casual corruption occasioned by the whole development process.  Enough said, already.

So there are reasons why, even when you pay much more than peanuts, you still get monkeys. It has to do with constitutional confusion, taxing powers that are not aligned with responsibilities, inappropriate remits, hubris, the overwhelming urge to virtue signal, planning-creep and the absence of codified expectations and suitable transparency that can be clearly understood by both councillors, staff and local voters.

Yet this doesn’t get local government off the hook.  They are indeed truly appalling, and, worst of all perhaps, they serve as the training ground for our state and fommonwealth politicians.  Does anybody remember Richard Torbay, former mayor of Armidale and chair of that august body of country whingers, the absurdly self-important NSW Country Mayors Association?  He rose to become Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly, during which time he came across Uncle Eddie Obeid.  The rest, as they say, is history.

While Edmund Burke perhaps didn’t have local councils in mind when he opined about the benign, mediating influences of those famous “little platoons”, he would nonetheless be quite appalled by the nonsense almost always dished up by our best and brightest local representatives.  For he did believe that one of the key mediating organisations in any functioning society was the local community.  Precisely because it is local, and involves brushing up against our immediate neighbours on a regular basis, this immediacy confers accountability for our actions.  The local council staff we sack in an inevitable “restructure” – and I personally experienced three council re-structures in three years! – we are likely to see on a Saturday at the local netball or soccer, or in the supermarket.

As thegreatthinkers.org notes:

Burke follows Aristotle and precedes Tocqueville in identifying associations as fundamental to human flourishing. For Burke, the best life begins in the “little platoons”—family, church, and local community—that orient men toward virtues such as temperance and fortitude. It is in the local and particular that we are able to live justly. In seeing political life as best conducted within an order of particular habits and presumptions—specifically, the order of the British Constitution—Burke resisted the attempts of some of his contemporaries to study man as if he could be viewed in isolation, apart from all the trappings of society.

The beauty of the local is, potentially, a thing of political beauty too.  It just doesn’t seem to work out that way.  Perhaps the key to our perennial disappointment lies in that last part of the above passage.  In a classical Burkean (and modern conservative) take, we are reminded that it is the virtues underpinning classical forms of government – the rule of law, doing good, upholding tradition, respecting what has been proven to have worked, and so on – that make politicians behave well, even local ones. When those we have elected lose the sense of reality that infused Burke’s thought, as in the case of just about every local leader from the Alderperson Pam in Margaret River, to our newest rainbow tickler in Lismore, to the now-crushed Pisasale, to the bloated felines who inhabit the upper reaches of the salary scale, we are prone to end up with the mediocrities we now have running our compromised and degraded platoons

And one of the greatest ways to ensure a loss of reality is to go trundling off down the path of corporatisation.  The fear of bumping into the sacked employee in the local supermarket matters far less to corporate style, ersatz executives who are (typically) imported from elsewhere to effect “cultural change” and “restructuring that better reflect community expectations and contemporary challenges”.  This, of course, is all rubbish.  They come in, do their Chainsaw Al Dunlap bit, then move on, ever up the greasy pole.  Local communities and long suffering, typically conscientious employees don’t know what hit them

And still the roads don’t get fixed.

(I should, of course, declare an interest.  I have been sacked by local councils on both sides of the Tasman and experienced three local government restructures in three years.  Oh, and my voting papers as a ratepayer of Central Hawke’s Bay New Zealand have just arrived in the mail).

5 thoughts on “The ‘Little Platoons’ of Local Government

  • paul scott says:

    The author is a brave man going to live in Lismore. This is a sad story of local politics, and it has smilarities with the over regulated Australian political machine all the way to the top. Paul Scott New Zealand

  • Nezysquared says:

    Nice article Paul. Now what do we do about it? Any ideas??

  • ianl says:


    Yes, i’ve been asking that question for about a decade now and not only on local council issues.

    Voting is pointless if no real choice is offered to voters, but merely an unedifying squabble over whose turn it is next to strut around. A politician will tell people anything they may want to hear on the hustings but once elected, their behaviour becomes that of quicksilver. Those of the unsackable bureaucrat classes regard process as the raison d’etre, not outcomes; “citizens” are simply a faint nuisance whose only real value lies in the money they are forced to supply.

    And yes, localised planners really do hate motor vehicles. Eighty year old people *must* learn to ride bicycles in the winter rain, even if only to the distant bus stop for inadequate service.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Local government office is an open invitation to corruption. There’s no accountability. Where I live a few decent people have gone on council over the years. They never last long because they simply cannot stand the lying hounds who form the majority. Incidentally, why would you want to reside in Lismore?

  • Salome says:

    I remember back in the day before amalgamation, and even before that, when the wards of the old municipalities had three councillors each. There were lots of councillors, but they were all voluntary, so they didn’t really cost anything. They would go about on weekends inspecting potholes and paving faults, meeting the residents who had brought them to the attention of council, and doing their best to keep the suburbs running. Now we have huge municipalities with large wards each served by one councillor who is paid to do the job. I don’t think that is better.

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