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Are community parties the key to more effective community governance?

By Mark Randell - posted Tuesday, 4 November 2003

The problem of modern democracies—at least the Western models—according to commentators such as John Ralston Saul, is that they spawn a class of "political elites" who have a career in politics that depends almost entirely on their peers. The elites make decisions about the community, state or country while remaining fairly un-connected to the people they supposedly serve.

The party viewpoint — by being aggregated — is (necessarily) no longer geographically specific; and yet this is what communities want and need: "geo-specific" representation.

As a politician, of course, you must think that you can make better decisions about matters of state than your neighbour, or his neighbour, or Mrs Jones down the road. The higher the aggregation level the better. Decisions that affect more people are less likely to draw negative comment—and you can always point to the (inevitable) supporters among the mass of numbers. You are thus already on the path to delusions of grandeur.


Soon, you’ll be the "man (or woman) of steel" - thereby confusing rigidity with strength, a common mistake in political circles. (Come the gales, however, the unbending reed will be the first one broken). The political support system for this network of peers is always self-reinforcing, and often pompous. (A recent example, at a local level, is that of the local Mayor who wishes to be known as “His Worship” rather than “Mr Mayor”.) I remember when there were Town Clerks.

The question — for someone of a community-development bent — is “how does the local ‘geo-community’ get back into the game, and ensure local candidates are selected who are beholden to their local, geographic community, and not (distant) political parties?”

What is needed is known. Candidates who spring from the community spontaneously, not beholden to the machinery, endorsement or support of state or federal parties; candidates who live in the areas they stand to represent; candidates who are strongly linked to their "geo-communities" and agree to work with them; candidates who hold an ethos of participation, consultation and collaboration; candidates who are known, liked and recommended by the communities from which they come; candidates who wish to represent their geographic communities, not a party line or viewpoint.

To achieve such paragons is possible. Two things are needed: a strong history, system, and ethos of local participation in community affairs, and a local political party that provides a gathering point and banner for candidates from disparate areas within the community.

Notice that I referred to a local political party. What’s that? A local political party is simply a party that stands candidates in its local community (for council elections), and has no interest whatsoever in standing candidates for state or federal seats. The task of a local party is simply to ensure that the local council is truly representative of the geographic community, without interference by the machinations of the main political parties in the country (eg. Liberal, or Labor, or Greens, or Democrats, or whomever).

The local political party is thus a barrier to allowing the "geo-community" to be used by the ‘major’ parties for their own purposes. It is a means by which the community can regain control of its own destiny: it is a community-development tool.


The problem — if it is one — is that such parties do not exist in Australia (nor anywhere else to my knowledge). So in order to gain the benefits of such structures, communities need to erect them.

This is not a trivial task. It must, in the spirit of the enterprise, involve collaborative work with a range of people. It must rest on, and draw on, an effective participation system that has some history in the community, which can locate and put forward candidates. It is a rare community that has achieved such structures. Yet there is such a community: Fremantle, Western Australia.

Fremantle has been running a local-government-supported participation system, known as the Fremantle Community Precinct System, since 1997. Under the system (first established in North Sydney by Ted Mack) community committees across the city receive and discuss material from the local government, and participate in various planning workshops and development seminars. Precincts are self-organised community groups that receive various kinds of support (including financial) from the council. There is a strong history of community participation in the system.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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