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Corporatocracy killing grassroots democracy

Date

Beryl Langer

We can speak out against a new McDonald's, another freeway or a bigger power station, but is anyone listening to local voices anymore?

Illustration: John Spooner

Illustration: John Spooner

What does democracy mean in Victoria? We vote every four years, and if we don't approve of what elected governments are doing on our behalf we can protest - write letters, call talkback radio, sign petitions, demonstrate, blog, Twitter and mobilise our Facebook friends. We talk back to power with impunity, not without risk of surveillance, but generally free from fear of incarceration.

Freedom of speech is no small thing, but is anyone with power actually listening? If you are speaking on behalf of a community that sees its quality of life threatened by fast food outlets, freeways, power stations or coal mines, you probably shouldn't hold your breath waiting for someone in power to respond. You think it's a bad idea to invest in roads when overwhelming evidence points to the need for public transport, never mind destroying precious parkland in order to move gridlocked traffic from the end of the Eastern Freeway into a tunnel? It's not up for debate, least of all by the people immediately affected by it! Government determination to build the east-west tunnel without regard to expert opinion, community opposition, fiscal responsibility or common sense sends a clear message. They have the power and they intend to use it.

Government refusal to engage with the community leaves people opposed to what they consider inappropriate development doubly aggrieved. They are angry about the blight on their landscape, but at a deeper level they are angry about what they see as the circumvention of democratic process involved in its approval. It matters little that the letter of the law has been followed if people feel that the spirit of democracy has been defiled.

The current standoff between protesters and developers at Tecoma is a prime example. Yes, the VCAT decision to allow McDonald's to proceed with their plan for a 24/7 franchise in the Dandenong Ranges was legal, but it lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the community. A consistent theme in published interviews with protesters relates to their sense of democratic outrage. Their elected local government refused McDonald's application for a permit; 90 per cent of surveyed residents did not want McDonald's in their town. Unsurprisingly, people feel cheated when an unelected tribunal rules in favour of a global corporation over the wishes of local government and the community it represents. It might be legal, but it doesn't feel ''democratic''. Nor does McDonald's resort to legal action feel ''just''.

While McDonald's is legally entitled to initiate court action against the ''Tecoma 8'', the asymmetry of money and power leaves people feeling that the law is being used for corporate bullying. The possibility of risking the family home to pay legal expenses deters even the most determined community activist. It is certainly ''legal'', but it is not experienced as ''just'', and when people lose faith in the legitimacy of social institutions, social cohesion is damaged. Naive as it may seem, ordinary people like to think that citizens in a democratic society are equal before the law; McDonald's versus the Tecoma 8 does not feel like ''equality''.

Faith in democracy has also been challenged in the inner north, where the Planning Minister overruled local objections to Singapore Power-AusNet's proposed expansion of the Brunswick Terminal Station's capacity from 22 to 66 kilovolts. Company plans had been twice rejected by the Moreland council on health, safety and environmental grounds, first in 2010, then in 2011. In February 2012 the Planning Minister intervened, rezoning the terminal station site in King Street, East Brunswick, as ''Special Use'' rather than ''Residential 1''. Nothing substantial had changed. The site was still in the middle of a residential area at the edge of the Merri Creek parkland, but this deft stroke of the ministerial pen removed the community's right to further appeal, except through the courts. As in Tecoma, this would be a contest between a global corporation and citizens whose homes were on the line if they lost the case.

While the Planning Minister's decision was ''legal'', those destined to live with its consequences saw it as hijacking democratic process. They responded in the usual ways - wrote letters, held meetings, organised rallies, handed out leaflets, maintained a weekly vigil near the site and presented the Premier with a petition signed by more than 3000 people calling for an independent review panel. A delegation visited minister Guy's electoral office in the hope that, as their representative in the Legislative Council, he might be persuaded to listen to their concerns. They spread their message on social media with a Facebook site, YouTube videos and Twitter. This vigorous exercise of the right to ''free speech'' has been met with resounding silence from Spring Street, with neither Premier nor minister responding to requests from community groups and three councils for a meeting, much less an independent inquiry.

Reflecting on these community campaigns, what might we conclude about the current state of democracy in Victoria? Immediately apparent are the limits to grassroots participation in decision-making about matters of planning and infrastructure. Once elected, state governments are free to impose their vision for the future, over-ruling decisions of local councils and ignoring feedback from constituents. If government power to make these decisions was backed by the authority that comes from being seen as competent and impartial, this would not be a problem. There are always winners and losers in planning disputes, and sometimes local concerns have to be disregarded in the interests of society as a whole. What is at issue here is whether these contested planning decisions are in the interests of society as a whole. If not, whose interests are served? How you answer these questions will shape your views on whether Victoria is better described as a democracy or a corporatocracy.

Dr Beryl Langer is an honorary associate in the school of social sciences at La Trobe University.

52 comments

  • This is one of the few articles I've read that actually understands the issues behind the Tecoma debacle.

    For many people, it's not about McDonalds, it's about a communities right to decide on it's own future. If an unelected tribunal, or a even corporation has more say in the fate of a town than the town itself, then there is something very wrong indeed.

    It doesn't matter if it's Maccas, Pokies, whatever, if the community votes *overwhelming* against a commercial proposal, that proposal should not happen, end of story.

    McDonalds has brought this situation on themselves, if they had maybe been more active in the past about littering concerns, 'hooning', and other environmental issues, maybe they wouldn't have the atrocious reputation they enjoy today.

    We have a situation in Tecoma where the local council decision is overruled in the interests of a large business. If this can happen so easily, why are we electing these people?

    Commenter
    munit
    Location
    Tecoma
    Date and time
    August 01, 2013, 9:36AM
    • Exactly. Our democracy has long been tainted by corporate power. Climate policy is probably the worst example - with the fossil fuel lobby putting their profits above the interests of every person on this planet. The two major parties are getting weaker and weaker in the face of the wishes of the 1%. It will take some serious organising and mobilisation by the 99% to break this power balance. The campaign in Tecoma against McDonalds is a great example of how it can be done.

      Commenter
      Debbie
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 9:57AM
    • Got it in one, our "democracy" is an empty slogan for big business to defecate on.

      Commenter
      Jim
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 10:28AM
    • +1. Good comment.

      "McDonalds has brought this situation on themselves, if they had maybe been more active in the past about littering concerns, 'hooning', and other environmental issues, maybe they wouldn't have the atrocious reputation they enjoy today."

      Unfortunately McDonald's attracts the sorts of people who litter and 'hoon'. What other restaurant do you see people go to, eat their food out of bags in their cars, open their car door when finished, place the rubbish on the ground, close the door and drive off. It's hard to believe people do that in this day and age, or in any age actually. But they do. (I have a McDonalds down the road, so I know, and the rubbish in my yard over a kilometer away illustrates the point)

      Commenter
      Ross | Preston
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 1:16PM
    • @Ross: Only 1km away. I find Maccas rubbish on the main road outside my house. I'm 5km from the proposed Tecoma site and 13 away from the nearest Ferntree Gully restaurant. You must get it in your yard all the time.

      Commenter
      BMG
      Location
      Dandenong Ranges
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 2:21PM
    • Hmm, has anyone asked maccas to change its packaging for the Tecoma store?

      Has anyone even asked maccas to offer refunds on containers in the Tecoma store?

      Commenter
      Alex
      Location
      Finley
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 3:48PM
    • What you people are saying is ludicrous ?
      Yes, all these people are working within the law. If I get a speeding fine, and say but the general public on facebook state that we should have faster speed limits. Who's right then ?

      It's a democracy, lets have a vote every time someone gets caught speeding, BECAUSE WE ARE A DEMOCRACY...

      No, that is not how democracies work. How democracies work, is as a people we vote on our laws. And then as a people it is our lawful duty to abide by these laws. Big Bad Old McDonald's is capable of that. Why isn't everybody.

      If you care so much about your town, start attending council meetings, be involved in the process. You say you grew up in this little town that always said no to any Fast Food, you are wrong, at some point it did. Now can everybody accept what was decided when the rules were voted on, and move on.

      Commenter
      Really NIMBY
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 4:07PM
  • Brilliant article. This discourse on governance and power is long overdue.

    Commenter
    louise
    Location
    tecoma
    Date and time
    August 01, 2013, 10:08AM
    • "Once elected, state governments are free to impose their vision for the future... If government power to make these decisions was backed by the authority that comes from being seen as competent and impartial, this would not be a problem."

      But surely the point of the system is that we vote for representatives at local, state and federal levels to impose for their vision for the future on our behalf? If we end up electing a government that isn't seen as competent or act contrary to our views, then perhaps the problem with our democratic process is one that has been caused by us in the first place.

      To cite example that wasn't mentioned, less than half of the electorate turned out to vote for the council that approved the hugely unpopular St Kilda Triangle, and the local councillor who became the public face of the project stood unopposed. It was only when the community turned out in greater numbers at the next election to vote for candidates who explicitly shared their opinion about what was actually an important matter to them that the project was canned.

      If we're apathetic about using the power that the system has given us to choose who will represent us in the decision making process, then we probably only have ourselves to blame when it is exploited to their own advantage by corporations eager to increase their profits. Ultimately, it's not corporatocracy that's killing grassroots democracy, it's our very own apathy.

      Commenter
      Daithi
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 10:28AM
      • 'But surely the point of the system is that we vote for representatives at local, state and federal levels to impose for their vision for the future on our behalf?'

        Well yes, but when a government goes back on its election promises in regards to the East-West Tunnel (and by virtue of this renegs on almost everything it promised about fixing public transport) ... then are our elected officials doing us over?

        Or in the case of the MacDonald's in Tecoma where the elected officials have done the right thing yet are stymied by legal avenues ... then what does that say about our rights to have elected officials have our voice for it to be ignored anyways.

        Lobbyists and power brokers don't care who is in office ... you just have to look at both sides of government and the illogical and very expensive things both have put in place over the years to know that they are not really looking out for our best interests (yet pretend that they are) but are making sure that those with the money have a disproportionate slice of the pie versus "we the people".

        'Ultimately, it's not corporatocracy that's killing grassroots democracy, it's our very own apathy.'

        Its a little of both. Apathy sets in when no mater how much we do doesn't matter or we are constantly bombarded and people can no longer keep up the fight. The resources in the public domain just do not match the resources and guile of the corporate.

        We all know that our rights and freedoms are nibbled away at over years and years and years ... we just don't realise until it is too late or even worse ... we believe that it is the norm.

        Commenter
        Matt_H
        Date and time
        August 01, 2013, 2:08PM

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