Opinion: media silence on local elections portends disconnection with all three layers of government

By Ian Lang

Monday November 9, 2020


Watching the US elections through endless Australian media coverage, it’s easy to feel smug that at least we’ve got democratic elections right.

Think again.

This last week, the votes of 4.33 million registered voters in Australia were counted for 2,187 candidates who will be duly sworn into 622 public offices after November 13 without public debate or even much awareness, with only the barest murmur of media interest.

That’s 298 separate elections held simultaneously in Australia that weren’t covered, while everyone was watching TV about an election somewhere else.

Voters didn’t have the chance to meet their candidates, attend public meetings, or vote in person. Because in Victoria, we voted for our local council by mail, reliant almost entirely on random mailbox drops from candidates to inform our voting decisions.

Democratic? Hardly, because now that even News Corp’s once deep pockets can’t make local newspapers viable, it’s even harder for anyone to feel connected to their neighbours and engaged in community decisions.

It’s not the previous publisher’s fault they couldn’t make the local business model work.

But it’s a seeding problem for democracy that increases disconnection with all three layers of government.

For big media like state and national newspapers and TV, local council news is just too parochial. We’ll get coverage of extreme outcomes – Australia’s first all-Green council elected gets a mention, and the Geelong Advertiser keeps readers abreast of its own.

But candidate statements, debates, and vested interest declarations will have to wait until something goes wrong before Australian media notices. Like what happens when policy and development planning goes ahead without effective public scrutiny and leaves otherwise good process open to corruption.

The electoral commissions – Victoria’s in this case – do a terrific job under trying circumstances this year. Encouragingly, only four-days after voting finished, the Victorian Commission released a press statement about possible vote-tampering in one electorate, that was carried by major media players – almost word-for-word. But that’s about it.

COVID-19 has made us think twice about Federation and the changing power dynamic between the states and commonwealth government. But our relationship to local government has been foundering well before the epidemic because of a lack of media interest, and this is helping to unravel the social glue that holds us together as communities. That glue underwrites values that makes us belong and participate in civic life.

Belonging matters in any state, where people feel disconnected from each other first by disease and then economically. Local government gets us literally where we live.

And the sense of good citizenship about where we live becomes coloured by stories of developers in cahoots with local councillors that will receive front-page coverage.

Even at its most basic, straightforward process like making development applications public becomes difficult when there’s no media for local news. We turn to our local council websites for information that affects us on multiple levels — our housing, vital support services and our social amenity. But without independent media interest, who can we turn to for news that doesn’t suit councillors that we simply won’t find out now?

In regional Australia, some local newspapers are being bought up to run again on the smell of an oily rag. The tectonic plates of change affecting mainstream journalism have brought many to the same path, seeking economic salvation through online offers. Most are increasingly driven to paid subscription models as the good will and reality of free news becomes exhausted.

The final Victorian Council election results for 298 elections across the state will be released on November 13 by the Victorian Electoral Commission. Let’s hope for our own democracy this isn’t the only place you’ll see it.

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