There is something intensely irritating about many modern-day local councils.
Once upon a time citizens looked to the local council to provide a few basic local services such as ensuring the maintenance of local roads, the collection of the garbage, the operation of a library and provision of a maternal and child health service.
This had begun to change by the 1980s when a few left-wing councils decided to make the odd feel-good meaningless gesture such as declaring themselves a “nuclear free zone”, but other than stinging ratepayers for the cost of a few signs this did not really do too much practical damage.
However, in recent years councils have more and more chosen to use their planning powers and ability to set rates to impose their personal world view on the rest of us.
Take poker machines. Earlier this year several councillors of the Logan City Council in south-east Queensland put forward a plan to outlaw any new development including poker machines within the municipality and to also prohibit any existing venue increasing its number of machines.
Not to be outdone, the mayor of Moreland Council in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, Cr Lambros Tapinos, has recently proposed doubling the rates paid by gaming venues in his municipality. The discriminatory nature of this rate hike is astounding, especially when one considers that other businesses who will continue to pay rates at the standard level in Moreland will include brothels, tattoo parlours, tobacconists, pawn shops, and so on, all of whom at least some citizens might consider to be as socially damaging as the local RSL or footy club.
Cr Tapinos maintains that it is the role of the council to discourage gambling. Nonsense. First, if there is a role for a level of government to regulate gambling, it is clearly the resposibility of state government. More fundamentally, the decision on whether to gamble, on horses at the TAB, on pokies, or on officially illegal card games in the back of one of Moreland’s many ethnic cafes is a matter far better left to the individual choice of adult citizens.
Compounding the problem of meddling councillors is the even more insidious practice of local bureaucrats weighing into the debate. Somehow these unelected local officials believe that they have a right to impose their world view on the citizenry. When the Moreland mayor proposed his plan it was welcomed by Philip Moran, the chief executive of Moreland Community Health.
“Anything that could try to reduce the impact of the scourge of gaming machines on our community is a good thing,” Mr Moran said. “There are too many venues and too many machines in this community.”
As far as I know Mr Moran has not specified how many machines is the correct number to ensure the maintenace of community health in Moreland, but he does know that it is fewer than the current number.
What is ironic about the rates increase proposal is that for years pokies critics have attacked state governments for relying too heavily on gambling taxes. Now the same charge will be able to be levelled at local governments.
While poker machines seem to the greatest bête noire of meddling local government councillors and bureaucrats, they also have other targets. Sydney’s Kogarah Council and Gosford Council on the Central Coast became the first councils in New South Wales to ban the use of trans fats. Both councils amended local development control plans, banning cafes and restaurants from using the controversial fats and forcing businesses to use healthier oils.
Not content with imposing her dietary choices on her own local community, Gosford’s Greens Councillor Terri Latella next began pushing for a state-wide ban. Cr Latella said. “It’s something we can regulate.” We can, so we will.
Then, of course, there is the most traditional target of these meddlers – alcohol. A councillor from the City of Casey, in outer south-eastern Melbourne has called for tighter planning controls to curb the number of packaged liquor outlets in one of the municipality’s major centres, Cranbourne. Cr Kevin Bradford claimed Cranbourne had become the bottle shop capital of Casey, with 14 bottle shops servicing an area with a 10km radius.
“Fourteen is a ridiculous number of packaged liquor outlets for a town this size,” Cr Bradford said, without specifying which smaller number he believed would be appropriate for his local community. He wants planning laws to be changed to give councils power to determine that number, whatever it is, but does not explain why he favours a law which would provide significant economic benefit to incumbent operators at the expense of potential competitiors. Ultimately, the sort of changes he is proposing will do nothing to address the problems of alcohol abuse which concern him, but will stifle economic development.
Now, it is true that for decades there have been local government areas in parts of Melbourne that were dry areas, but the ability to vote that an area become dry had been allowed by state government legislation. What is new is having so many councils believing that their remit includes attempting to control so much of what happens within their boundaries. No aspect of federal or state policy, or personal activity is seen as beyond their potential meddling.
Ironically, local councils all seem to have extensive diversity programs. Unfortunately, their tolerance of diversity fails to extend to those local residents who get enjoyment from playing the pokies, eating the foods of their choice or having a range of locations from which to buy alcohol.