Image for The Randwick Inclusive Power Sharing Arrangement – a Model for Tasmania?

Now that Tasmania has a 10-10-5 House of Assembly, how a government can be formed and made to work for the next four years in the best interests of Tasmania’s people remains a conundrum.

If honesty and policy alone were to drive the formation of a government, a Liberal-Labor coalition would be appropriate. However both organisations see this as damaging to their “brands” and “market share” (remember, these are businesses by nature and political parties by name only). Furthermore they are determined to prevent the Greens acquiring the status of a formal opposition.

With that option closed, Tasmanians struggle to imagine an alternative to what has failed twice before – an impossibly conflicted and inevitably unhappy “marriage” of Labor to Green or Liberal to Green.

The Liberals’ preferred solution (so poisonous to them they can’t bring themselves to mention it by name) appears to be marriage to the Greens. Labor’s preference is concisely expressed by Peter Tucker in his blog, (Article below):

“The “hard heads” in the parties [he means Labor] it seems to me would prefer opposition than minority government. They think that a couple of years in opposition can then be followed by a decade in power when the minority government inevitably fails.

But what if it doesn’t fail? What if minority outcomes are here to stay?

Politicians have to play with the hand dealt them. Real leaders step forward and make their own rules. They don’t see themselves as actors in some kind of play with a predetermined plot.

The door is open wide right now. Will someone be brave enough to step through?” (and, HERE)

All three parties have young, intelligent and well educated leaders. Are they capable of stepping through the wide open door and making their own rules? One way to do that would be to consider the remarkable innovation put into practice at the local government level where I live in the City of Randwick in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

For a very long time, Randwick’s local government was dominated by the Labor Party. This reflected the working class heritage of the Randwick local government area, stretching from Botany Bay in the south to the edge of the more affluent Eastern suburbs to the north.

However in recent years Randwick has become “gentrified”, and the local Labor Party has been seen by more and more people for what it is - an arrogant, cynical and self-serving organisation, incapable of modernising and consistently failing its community. As a result, the Greens and the Liberals have gradually eroded the Labor vote.

Following a council election in 2004 for all 15 councillor positions, the number of Labor councillors fell from 8 to 7 and the Liberals (5) and Greens (3) found themselves in a position to end Labor control of the council − if they could come to a workable agreement.

The solution the Greens and Liberals devised is quite different to the conventional two parties-excluding-the-third proposals that are apparently being discussed in Tasmania today.

Instead, the Randwick Greens proposed and won Liberal support for an inclusive power sharing arrangement. This is how it worked:
The Mayoralty would be rotated between the three parties.
The first Mayor under the arrangement was the Greens leader Murray Matson, who became the first Green mayor of a Sydney metropolitan council; it was agreed that he would be Mayor for six months (this was later extended to 18 months).
The second Mayor for the next year was a senior Liberal Ted Seng.
Initially, the Labor Party refused to be considered for the third one year Mayoral term. However the most reasonable of the Labor councillors eventually agreed to participate and he in turn became Mayor for the next year.
The final year of the council’s term was taken by senior Liberal Bruce Notley-Smith.

This inclusive power sharing arrangement has transformed local government politics in Randwick. With all-out victory no longer seen as essential, councillors have had the opportunity to consider issues on their merits.

As the leading councillors of each party know that they will have a turn as Mayor or chairman of a key committee, ambition has been curbed. Each councillor appreciates that advancement and influence will come not from blind loyalty to a political organisation, but from mature conduct, responsible consideration of issues and a willingness to listen to the community.

Beyond changes to the culture at the representative level, Randwick’s Green and Liberal mayors undertook fundamental reform of the council’s culture and operations.

The General Manager appointed at the end of the term of the last Labor Mayor resigned and a professional executive search led to the recruitment of a highly competent, experienced and apolitical General Manager. With excellent cooperation between councillors and management, the council’s finances were reformed, new managers were recruited, operations and customer service were improved and environmental programs were initiated.

After long having a reputation as one of the most poorly administered councils in Sydney, Randwick is today ranked as one of the best.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Does the Randwick power sharing arrangement lead to chaos and stagnation?
No it doesn’t. Randwick city is thriving. The council chamber conducts itself reasonably well and the council’s operations are professionally run. Much of the deep cynicism about local government in Randwick has evaporated.

Has power sharing with the Greens eroded the political base of the Liberals?
No, the Liberals are slightly stronger than they were before.

Has the refusal of most Labor councillors to participate in power sharing with the Greens strengthened Labor?
No, Labor is perceived as a bad loser, uncooperative and an obstacle to reform. The gradual decline in Labor’s support has continued. The Labor councillors who were most disruptive left the council at the 2008 election. On the other hand, the Labor councillors who were cooperative have retained popularity and influence and provide a basis from which Labor can reform and renew itself.

Are the Greens kingmakers? Does this make them arrogant, dogmatic and uncooperative? Are they imposing “loony left” and “tree hugger” policies on the community?
No, the Greens have had policy victories and certainly have influence, particularly in areas such as planning, environmental programs and climate-related initiatives. However they have lost on many issues when Liberal and Labor combine to vote against them.

Has the arrangement given a “leg up” to the Greens, allowing them to increase their influence and their vote at the expense of all others?
No. On occasions the Greens misread the community and had to reconsider policies. Their vote strengthened at the 2008 council election, but not dramatically.

Is power sharing forever?
No. In fact the 2008 council election weakened the power sharing arrangement in a quite unexpected way. The Labor numbers dropped by two with the election of independents at their expense. This has reduced the influence of the Greens by allowing the Liberals to put together majorities with independent and disaffected Labor councillors. This year’s Mayoral election in September will determine whether the inclusive sharing concept can survive. However whether or not the arrangement survives, it is indisputable that Randwick has had four good years out it. Having experienced both the bad old days of Labor dominated Randwick and the inclusive power sharing experiment, I have no doubt the arrangement greatly benefited the citizens of the city, the council staff and managers and the councillors themselves.

Could such a model work in Tasmania?
Certainly Tasmania is a state and not a city council; the range of powers of its parliament is greater and there are more complex and contentious issues than those that are dealt with by local government. However with Commonwealth control increasing in most traditional areas of state responsibility (education and health being the latest), the gap between a small state government and a large and rich metropolitan city is inexorably closing. Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s former Chief of Staff recently expressed it thus:

“the health network proposal is the harbinger of the federation inexorably dissolving into a quasi regional model along British lines.”

The gap between a large local government and a small state government can only narrow, and lessons learnt about power sharing in the former can inform the latter as it deals with a broadly similar challenge.

To quote Peter Tucker again:

“Real leaders step forward and make their own rules.”

I believe that the best way forward for Tasmania is for its three talented young leaders and their substantially refreshed teams of parliamentarians to stop listening to the old men who seek to direct and control them.

They should also close their ears to the machine men in the party hierarchies, the spin doctors and all the other hangers on who make their living out of the chronically conflicted, adversarial and uncreative nonsense that is the norm for Australian politics.

Instead, the leaders should together devise an inclusive power sharing arrangement, along the lines of what has worked so well in Randwick, that can govern Tasmania cooperatively in the interests of the Tasmanian community.