Saturday, November 17, 2018

The importance of community of interest in government 1

Back in September 2017 in the context of the NSW local government elections I mused on the strange case of Bayside Council. Bayside was formed by the merger of the old Botany Bay and Rockdale Councils as part of the NSW Government's push to merge councils with the aim of reducing the cost of service delivery. Bigger is cheaper.

The move cause outrage because it forcibly merged two areas separated by Sydney airport that had nothing in common beyond a location around Botany Bay. There was, I suggested, no community of interest in the new Bayside Council. The areas had nothing in common. That remains the view of many of those north of Botany Bay in the old Botany Bay Council area to the point that the current NSW Labor opposition has promised a vote on demerger if elected.

I'm sorry I can't give you a link here because the story is behind a firewall. I note that I want to come back to this question, the firewalls, in a later post because I now have an absolute bee in my bonnet about it after some recent changes.

Botany Bay was not the only firestorm triggered by the NSW Government's council merger plans, nor indeed the biggest. So bad was the reaction that the Government was forced to stop the process midway, stating that mergers that had occurred would stand, others would not be forced. This created a new set of dissatisfactions among those who had lost their council and still wanted it back.

Earlier I used the phrase community of interest. As a matter of curiosity and as I normally do, I checked the term on Wikipedia. There I see that a:
community of interest, or interest-based community, is a community of people who share a common interest or passion. These people exchange ideas and thoughts about the given passion, but may know (or care) little about each other outside this area ......a community of interest is a gathering of people assembled around a topic of common interest. Its members take part in the community to exchange information, to obtain answers to personal questions or problems, to improve their understanding of a subject, to share common passions or to play.  In contrast to a spatial community, "a 'community of interest' is defined not by space, but by some common bond (e.g. feeling of attachment) or entity (e.g. farming, church group).
In turn, a spatial community is defined as:
A community of place or place-based community is a community of people who are bound together because of where they reside, work, visit or otherwise spend a continuous portion of their time.  Such a community can be a neighborhood, town, coffeehouse, workplace, gathering place, public space or any other geographically specific place that a number of people share, have in common or visit frequently. A community offers many appealing features of a broader social relationship: Safety, familiarity, support and loyalties as well as appreciation. Appreciation that is founded on efforts and contribution to the community, rather than the efforts, rank or status of an individual.
These definitions have only tangential connection to the way I use the term, a usage drawn from the New England populist tradition. There community of interest is seen as the essential geographic or spatial basis of governance and of governance structures. Like many principles, it has been commonly used but not not fully defined beyond the idea that governance and governance structures have to be based on shared interests and concerns. Where that principle is breached, government is likely to fail.

Consider the Bayside Council example. To the Government in Macquarie Street concerned with politics, governance and service delivery across an increasingly disparate state that owes its existence and boundaries to accidents of history, local government is seen as a subordinate creature, a vehicle for the delivery of certain services including administrative delivery of decisions made centrally.

Locals see things differently. To them, local government is the form of government that most closely reflects (or should most closely reflect) their local identity and concerns. When Botany Bay Council was submerged in Rockdale, those north of Botany Bay felt a real sense of loss. That may change. In the fight over Astrolabe Park, Bayside did play a positive role. However, the difficulty remains that there really is no community of interest between north and south.

When I get the regular Council newsletter in the mailbox, it refers to places I rarely go or, in some cases, places that I had never heard of prior to the merger.

This need not matter if there were separate plans and processes focused on the northern end, but the existence of Bayside as an entity together with State Government requirements effectively requires the Council to develop common policies and approaches as though Bayside LGA was in fact a geographic as opposed to administrative entity.

While government is likely to fail or at least be less effective if it ignores or does not properly take community of interest into account in structures and approach, defining community of interest can be difficult, accommodating it still more so where political and administrative structures are rigid. Problems here are compounded where, as is the case today, there is a belief that a single standard or approach is desirable. We can see this clearly at national level in Australia where Commonwealth Governments of all ilks seek to impose common policies and uniform standards even where evidence suggests that this is not sensible.

As a broad generalisation, community of interest diminishes as governing or institutional structures become geographically and demographically larger and more diverse. Even where there are shared needs, the expression of those needs varies between areas.

Consider the Commonwealth electoral division of Parkes, the largest in NSW. This covers 393,413 square kilometres, 49% of NSW. This compares to the smallest electorate, the inner Sydney electorate of Grayndler at just 32 square kilometres. While electors in both have some common interests very broadly defined such as health or education, those interests vary greatly between the two electorates. There is in fact no community of interest between the two electorates except at the most macro level.

Further, within Parkes distance means that there are a variety of geographically defined communities of interest. The electorate itself is so big that it lacks community of interest in its own right. Broken Hill is far removed from Narrabri.

One of the deeply held myths in Australia lies in the importance of the majority. Because the New England populist tradition grew up outside the metros, another theme was the way that majorities would always oppress the minority in the absence of some countervailing force. In practice, the way that the absence of community interest is handled, the way that oppression of the majority is managed to some degree in the Australian system, lies in the way that all the main Australian parties are interest based with their base support geographically concentrated appealing to particular communities of interest. I am not saying that there are not ideological differences. There are, but these interconnect with the parties' history and support areas.

Consider the Greens as a case in point. They began as a cause based party, but succeeded because the views they developed appealed to people concentrated in particular areas. An interaction developed between those communities and the Party. Outside core areas, Green support is very patchy.

In competing against each other, the various parties need to reach out to other voters while also looking after traditional interests, then in power they have to compromise. The National Party is important in this mix because it is the only party that explicitly defines its role in geographic terms, forcing more targeted competition for a regional vote that might otherwise be seen as secondary.

The effect of all this is to temper the potential oppression of the majority, to better link political processes to varying communities of interest.

Tomorrow I will look at the way community of interest is handled at policy and institutional terms and the reasons these approaches so often fail to deliver the desired results.


marcellous said...

I'm waiting for "tomorrow."

2 tanners said...

I am not convinced that a community of interest exists except in exceptional and case by case matters. Political divisions are often split very closely to 50:50 ratio. For example, Malcolm Turnbull's primary vote of 62% was extraordinarily safe, but it meant that over a third viewed him as at least a second rate option.

While you may agree with most of your neighbours on (say) immigration, you may violently disagree with them on gun laws, cycling helmets, climate change or industry assistance. The case-by-case nature means that you are part of one community on one issue, but another on each separate issue. Politics can be seen as the art of fusing a sufficient number of issues to a sufficiently low enough denominator to attract 50% + 1 of the votes, including preferences, or even less in the case of multi=member electorates.

Anonymous said...

A shifting coalition rather than a community of interests tanners? I can accept that.


2 tanners said...

Beautifully put, kvd.

The logical consequence is that being governed by a fixed coalition (such as a political party) will fail frequently, even with the best will in the world.

Jim Belshaw said...

marcellous, I know tomorrow never comes.

2t, kvd. Are you arguing that governance is no more than the creation of a necessary minimum majority in any given polity that combines a majority defined as number of snouts in favour weighted by how much people care?

2 tanners said...

I don't presume to speak for kvd, but I am arguing that 'governance' has little to do with a community of interest. Taking a trivial example, we would have seen same sex marriage years ago if the broader agreement in the community had been reflected by our Federal Government. I tend to use the word governance to mean following the proper processes of government which in my example, Governments since Mr Howard's changes to the Marriage Act, the running of the plebiscite* and the following vote in Parliament all did.

Given that a government is supposedly doing things in the better interests of the people, making the brave assumption that most of the time people know what they want the government to do, and noting that people as a whole tend to be a shifting coalition of interests, altruistic and otherwise, it makes it hard for a government, particularly one united by a common ideology, to service that community in the way that even 50% of them want most of the time.

*The plebiscite could be seen as a means of avoiding proper process or at least of avoiding Parliament doing its job and therefore poorer governance but I'm not inclined to quibble.

Anonymous said...

Yes tanners - that was my layman's understanding of the term "governance", but I just assumed, presumed, that Jim actually meant to write "government".

And I can't really make a good argument against what he then states - "number of snouts" and all :)


ps this is my new, agreeable, persona :)