With globalisation reducing the relevance of nations, ALGA President John Campbell (refer page 1) points to people turning to their local community and local democracy as an ‘anchor’. Given this trend, it is timely to consider the importance of local democracy and the need to protect it at all costs.

Within a few months perhaps the greatest recent affront to local democracy, the removal of elected representatives from all Victorian Councils by that State Government, will be behind us with Council elections in mid March. Most of these 55 Councils (representing over 70% of Victorian Councils) have been without elected representatives for in excess of two years.

From many quarters, questions have been raised about both the need for and desirability of elected representatives being removed from the Victorian restructure process. Furthermore, that if State appointed Commissioners were required, why was such a long period of time needed for them to complete the restructure?

In a turn up for the books residents in the Shire of Melton, located on Melbourne’s western fringe, recently voted in a referendum to provide their Commissioners with an additional two years.

The question put to voters asked, ‘Do you approve the proposal that to enable completion of the restructure of Melton Shire, Commissioners continue until March 1999?’.

Interestingly, Melton was one of the few Municipalities in Victoria which had minimal change to its original boundaries during the restructure process. There was no requirement to merge separate organisations, as most new Councils faced, and yet it would seem by the wording of this proposal Commissioners at Melton have not been able to complete their task!

Voting for this referendum was not compulsory and, of the 26,329 voters on Council’s Rolls, only 53% saw fit to have their say. The vote was postal and resulted in a turn out much lower than that of Victorian Council elections last year, where also under postal voting, figures of over 90% were recorded.

With almost 71% of those voting in the Melton referendum agreeing with the proposal, it is now over to the Minister for Local Government to decide whether this single Council should remain the only one in Victoria without elected representation. Under the Local Government Act, the Minister is not bound by the result of any such referenda proposal. Putting the politics aside of why this is the case, the key question is with just over half the voters turning out, is it a clear indication of what the majority want?

Situations such as this point to the need for compulsory voting to achieve a clear indication of majority views. With voting being compulsory at the Federal and State levels, this should also be the case for Local Government. Voting is compulsory for Council elections in Victoria but not for referenda.

Following this line of argument, given the push for Constitutional Recognition for Local Government, in States where voting is still not compulsory for Council elections, State Associations on behalf of their members should work to rectify this, sending a clear message to their constituents that local democracy depends on and demands their involvement.

Where voting is compulsory, even a minimal fine ensures almost everyone turns out to vote. We cannot rely on volunteerism. It is simply not good enough for such an important issue as other ‘priorities’ will quickly overtake many an individual’s civil responsibility.

Those who question the need for compulsory voting should ask themselves how many would volunteer to pay taxes, obtain licences, serve on juries and so forth, if it was not compulsory to do so. Our right to vote is not only a privilege, unfortunately still denied many in our global village, but more importantly a responsibility that cannot be shirked.