Celebrity photographer and nightclub owner Darren Lyons is en route for the a victory in the Geelong Mayoral by-election with about 30%, ahead of his nearest rival Stephanie Asher with 12%. It is a compulsory preferential ballot but with 16 candidates it would be extremely unlikely for Lyons to lose from here. The City of Greater Geelong is large local government area with a population of over 211,000 in 2011. It is not much smaller in population than the Northern Territory. It is larger in population than the Cities of Sydney and Melbourne. It is a highly social diverse city that includes affluent middle-class suburbs and northern zone with high levels of poverty and social exclusion.
At state and federal elections Geelong is largely Labor voting city with three of the four state electorates held by Labor at the 201 state election which Labor lost and of the two federal electorates one is safe Labor and the other a marginal currently held by the Liberals. Yet Geelong politics is partyless, apart from a low-profile Green none of the 16 candidates for this by-election claimed a party endorsement. At the 2012 election for Mayor there was a Green and a member of Socialist Alliance but none of the other candidates claimed a party affiliation. In the absence of cues the result in both this mayoral by-election and the original election has been largely determined on name recognition.
Australian local government politics has attracted little academic attention. This is unlike Britain where there is mass of material, particular from the 1970s and 1980s when Labour local governments found themselves in conflict with Conservative national administrations. Some of this work was Marxist in approach but such an approach has relevance to Geelong. In the absence of parties a directly elected mayoral election in a large city favours local businesses that have the financial resources to promote their candidate of choice. Non-partisan elections in the United States favour conservative candidates. The decline of organizations that once challenged capital such as unions and the Labor Party means that is why the conservative state government, with the encouragement of the local Geelong business community, legislated to establish a directly elected Mayor. Yet if a Marxist approach works to explain Mayoral elections it doesn’t work at the level of the twelve wards that elect members to Council. Here personalities and the ability of councilors to represent the interests of local community groups to the Council are crucial. I have heard it said that the road to election is to have sports clubs on side. Councilors boast of their success is steering funding to ward projects, but this has been criticized as a violation of their corporate responsibility to act in the interests of the city as whole.
I am reminded of the American debate about ‘machine politics’ in local government. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century business groups, with the support of sympathetic experts, spearheaded reforms of many American city governments to shift power away from elected councilors to the mayor and city managers. These reforms undercut the basis of political machines, which relied on the delivery of favours to local notables in exchange for the organization of voters. Local capitalists who wanted lower taxes and less intrusive (and often corrupt) regulation were pleased. Similar motives and interests inspire the introduction of a directly elected mayor in Geelong. Keith Fagg, prominent local businessman, who was elected Mayor in 2011 found himself at loggerheads with Councilors. Fagg was loyal to the interests of local capital. He sought to direct funds towards revitalization of the Central Business District at the expense of wards. We should be critical of both sides in this debate. The relocation of funds to the CBD offers little to disadvantaged residents of Geelong, but we should not sentimentalize local councilor machine politics. Councilors boast of their ability to deliver funds to sporting facilities but Diversitiat, also known as the Geelong Ethnic Communities Council, has complained that it was not made aware of the existence of funds allocated by local Councilors. Geelong has a substantial population of recent refugee settlers. Can they compete with sporting clubs?
Darren Lyons’ victory is an embarrassment to the state government and local capitalists whose preferred candidate, Ken Jarvis, was unable to compete with Lyons’ celebrity appeal. Recall how 1930s German capitalists wanted to rid themselves of German social democracy but found that their preferred parties could not compete with the Nazis populist appeal.
There’s a broader lesson democracy isn’t just about elections. In a class society the wealthy have natural advantage in politics. Strong parties and organizations such as trade unions can inform lower-income voters. Victor Key in his Southern Politics showed how the weaknesses of political parties in the American South during the 1930s favoured elites. In the absence of effective organization by local progressive forces Geelong’ s political culture will alternate between empty populism and machine politics.