Have your say

You usually don’t hear anything about your council’s budget until you get your rates bill, but in this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER, Bayswater councillor and self-employed financial planner CHRIS CORNISH suggests we look at participatory budgeting to give locals a say on where their cash goes. 

AROUND this time every year, local governments set the budget for the following 12 months.

It’s a time-consuming process where planned expenditure is decided and then rates are set to meet those expenditures.

The fact of the matter is, it’s your money, but do you feel you’re getting a sufficient say?

I believe we need to make two changes to the budget process which will improve transparency and increase community involvement:

Transparency

At the budget council meeting, councillors must generally adopt the budget on an all-or- nothing basis. Any points of contention would likely have been raised in the many budget workshops and a consensus formed.

While no councillor would be happy with every item in the budget, inevitably most acknowledge the budget needs to be passed and the consensus from the workshops accepted.

I believe there should be a public “pre-budget adoption” council meeting, instead of a workshop behind closed doors. Every line item a councillor wants to discuss/explore, can be debated by the full council and confirmed by an official vote. Ratepayers and residents would see what their councillor’s position is on expenditure items, which would greatly improve transparency.

Participatory

Councillor Lorna Clarke mentioned at the budget meeting that Bayswater should consider ‘participatory budgeting’. I agree, and hope that Cr Clarke moves a notice of motion to that effect.

Participatory budgeting first occurred in Brazil in 1989, and in Australia in 2012. The objective is to get the community involved in the budget process and give them a say on how their dollars are allocated. For it to work well, it is imperative to have a good cross-section of the community involved.

Fortunately Bayswater council has received accolades on how they operated a community panel, which randomly selected 30-40 people who attended two days of discussion, and ultimately provided invaluable feedback on the city’s local planning strategy. A similar method could be used.

There is a wide variation in how participatory budgeting is conducted.

Melville council used participatory budgeting in relation to an allocation of funds to community groups. Greater Geraldton council took things further and used participatory budgeting to review and cease some non-mandatory services in order to keep rates down.

Negatives include the cost of conducting participatory budgeting, so it is likely to only occur every few years.

In addition, we are a representative democracy, so criticism may occur over elected representatives “outsourcing” decision making to the public. In effect, it would be a move towards a direct democracy.

If Bayswater council goes down this route, there is no reason why we can’t strive to set a new standard in how participatory budgeting is conducted in Australia.

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