“Ordinary people don’t know what’s good for them.” Sadly, this is a common sentiment among many politicians, business leaders, government bureaucrats and even senior academics. None of these power-holders can agree precisely on who these so-called ‘ordinary people’ actually are. But they all seem to agree that big decisions should not be made democratically by those who are most directly affected by them.
Apparently, ‘the masses’ are too uneducated, disengaged, short-sighted and self-interested to make good decisions about the long-term public interest (as though politicians have proven themselves to be any better in this respect).
I see this patronising contempt for democracy play out in Brisbane City Council on a daily basis. Residents are given no meaningful input into the big decisions that shape our city, because the political class doesn’t trust ordinary people to make good choices (they do, however, trust developers, property speculators, security companies and advertising agencies).
This is a problem we can’t afford to ignore; cities shape every aspect of our lives. Urban planning, transport networks and local government regulations have a major influence on our quality of life – on how often we see our friends and family, on where we work and relax, on our food security and disaster resilience, on our mobility, housing security and cost of living.
The values and policy priorities of local government also directly shape how we face the great global challenges of our era. Whether it’s transitioning our society to be less dependent on fossil fuels, or making sure we have enough room to accommodate more refugees, or ensuring all of us are happy and healthy, a lot comes down to the design and governance of our cities. Even the minority of us who arepolitically engaged tend to focus more on federal and perhaps state politics, forgetting that the effective implementation of major federal initiatives often depends on what’s happening at the local level.
But right now, cities are primarily arranged and governed to suit the interests of big business. Bushland is rezoned for residential suburban sprawl so that a land speculator can clear the forest and make an easy profit. Ratepayer funds are wasted on mega-projects like toll tunnels and road-widenings that don’t reduce congestion, but do make a lot of money for construction companies. Planning codes are relaxed so developers can squeeze even more low-quality highrise apartments into neighourhoods that lack sufficient green space, community facilities and public transport services. Even humble bus shelters are redesigned to create more space for corporate advertising.
Meanwhile, roughly 10 000 Brisbanites are homeless, while somewhere between 30 000 and 60 000 homes sit emptylong-term. The poorest residents of our city – those of us who walk or ride the bus to get around, those of us who can’t afford to buy a home in the ‘nice’ neighbourhoods – are most greatly impacted by Brisbane City Council decisions, and yet have the least influence over them. As our cities evolve and densify, some of us are making a lot money and experiencing significant improvements to our quality of life, but others are getting left behind. In this context, arguing that ordinary residents shouldn’t have more say over local government decisions seems particularly callous and inequitable.
Sure, right now many Brisbanites might not understand the basic principles of urban planning or street tree maintenance, but giving people more power and responsibility over a particular issue leads to greater engagement and understanding. And actually, it’s the people on the ground who have the localised practical knowledge of what their neighbourhood needs, and who better understand the linkages between different issues and policy areas in a way that’s often overlooked by public servants and ‘experts’ with narrow fields of interest.
A council traffic engineer might look at aerial maps and vehicle count spreadsheets and decide that a pedestrian crossing should be located on the southern side of an intersection because that’s better for traffic flow, but it’s only the residents living in that neighbourhood who’ll recognise that kids walking home from school will prefer the northern side because it happens to be shadier and flatter.
But above and beyond that, city councils – particularly the big rich ones like BCC – also have a crucial proactive role to play in placing upward pressure on other levels of government. When councils start passing motions supporting same sex marriage or Aboriginal land rights claims, this can have a significant impact on state and federal policy.
Many people are surprised to learn that as of February 2019, 19 of Brisbane’s 26 councillors belong to the Liberal National Party. This is the main reason that BCC has not, for example, passed motions calling for reforms to Centrelink, while neighbouring councils like Logan City Council have done so. The fact that Brisbane’s councillors are, on average, nowhere near as progressive as the people they represent is a huge missed opportunity. It’s only when you stop to imagine how different our society would be if we had a city council that actively supported and valued live music, or local small businesses, or public transport, or public art projects, or restoring wildlife corridors, that you start to realise how much we’re missing out on.
Basically, what I’m saying is that we need to fight for greater control of how our city changes and evolves. We need to experiment with a range of different democratic processes to decentralise and localise decision-making. And we need to do this in a way that engages with and centres the struggles of First Nations peoples against dispossession and ongoing colonisation. This is not such a crazy proposition. Other cities, from Barcelona in Spain to Porto Alegre in Brazil, are already showing us what’s possible.
The message that ordinary people should have more say in local government decision-making has broad appeal across the political spectrum. And it’s one that all of us should be spreading. We shouldn’t be content to allow big corporations to shape and control our city.
As Brisbane grows and changes, all of us should be able to share the benefits equally. And all of us should get a say.
The ideas in this article have come from a wide range of literature and conversations, but for more on this topic I particularly recommend the work of David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Ada Colau, James C Scott, Jane Jacobs, and closer to home, Natalie Osborne.