Sunday Territorian 18 May 2014
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14 OPINION SUNDAY MAY 18 2014 NTNE01Z01MA - V1 City ban on lighting up just one example of councils social engineering Smoke and mirrors at work It seems some drugs are more despised than others and councils wont butt out of peoples lives WITH a tobacco-scented air of resignation, smokers would concede it is only a matter of time before all our major cities follow Melbournes lead in considering a ban on smoking within our CBDs. It will probably happen everywhere within a decade. In an ideal world, no-one would smoke but what interests me is not the heated argybargy about the rights of smokers versus non-smokers, but two other features of the debate. The first is what it says about the competing and contradictory philosophies within drug policy in this country. The second is the political ramifications of the least representative tier of government adopting policy positions far beyond their core business and electoral mandate. On the question of Australian drug policy or more accurately, drug policies, as there appear to be two of them in this country I have long marvelled at the fact that the gritty Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst is home to what may be the worlds only smoke-free injection room. You can turn up with your water balloon filled with smack, bought from your friendly neighbour drug triad or biker gang, and get a taxpayer-funded nurse to insert a taxpayer-funded needle into your arm, with a taxpayerfunded crew on standby to run you up to St Vincents in case you turn blue. Should you, however, light up a fag, they will tell you to put the filthy thing out, think about the harm youre doing to yourself and others, and call security if you fail to desist. Obviously there are occupational health issues caused by smoking for staff, but the separate point about health workers fretting about junkies injuring themselves with cigarettes still stands, in a huge and hilarious way. When it comes to illegal drugs, the buzz word is harm minimisation but when it comes to alcohol or tobacco the health lobby and many in government are advocating what increasingly looks like prohibition, plain and simple. Smoke packets now look like still photos from a casualty ward. Beer sponsorships for cricket matches are a threat to the safety of us all. But when Geoff Huegill and his wife decided to get a babysitter and peel off for a debauched Saturday snorting coke together in a dunny at the races, the debate for many people was not about their irresponsible conduct but why the police were persecuting the fun-loving pair. At least they werent smoking in the toilets. Aside from our ludicrously mixed messages on drugs, the weird feature of this new abstemiousness is that we have let councils throw themselves into policy areas which are a universe away from their brief. The work of councils should involve civil engineering, not social engineering. Back in the good old days, councils saw it as their job to remember which night was bin night, pick up stray dogs and process development applications within a three-month time frame. As anyone who has renovated their house would know, councils have become much slower at doing the last of those tasks, perhaps because they have ceased to regard themselves less as simple ser vice providers than a new vanguard of social change. Living as I used to do in Sydneys inner west, Marrickville Council was too busy trying to establish a Palestinian homeland than to fix the potholes on Illawarra Rd. While such idiotic forays into foreign affairs have blessedly been limited to a handful of LGAs, it is in the area of public health and lifestyle choice that more councils are embracing a new impertinence in telling us how we should live our lives. One of the chief arguments which councils use to justify the controversial and largely non-consultative rollout of bike lanes is that the nation is facing an obesity crisis. This ar gument has been used to defend the deliberate destruction of once-functional thoroughfares such as Sydneys King St and Adelaides Frome St. When Lord Mayors say, as they do, that Australians need to lose weight, they are conceding that the introduction of these bikeways has, in fact, been a punitive measure for motorists, and that their hope is that drivers will get so frustrated being stuck in cars that theyll dust off the treadly instead. I am just not sure if its the job of the Lord Mayor to put us on a diet. The decision of councils to drift into these new policy areas would be less of an issue if local government was a real version of government. In most states voting in local government elections is not compulsory. Most people dont pay any attention to who is running their local council, not because theyre apathetic, but they have better things to do. Our city councils are also less democratic than suburban councils or shire councils. This is because the only people who get to vote for them are ratepayers who live in the CBD or own businesses there. This means that the millions of Australians who spend 38 hours and upward a week in our CBDs have no say in how they are run. These people travel to the cities every day, spend money there, eat, drink and party there. They spend one-third of their lives there and have no control over how they function. As such, city councils are under no political pressure to govern for the greater good but to appease narrow local interests. They fall prey to barrowpushing inner-city ideologues and crusty old NIMBYs who elevate their hyper-local concerns about issues such as business development or concert noise or event parking against the ability of a state full of people to work and relax. The joke is that at a time when we are talking furiously about the overall cost of government, weve got government coming out of our ears. There is little work done by councils which could not be done by the private sector. The rest you would farm off to turbo-charged state planning departments and environment departments. We would save so much money from cutting duplication wed be in surplus by Monday, governed by just two tiers of government which are at least representative.
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