Academic journal article Rural Society

Community Governance in Rural Victoria: Rethinking Grassroots Democracy?

Academic journal article Rural Society

Community Governance in Rural Victoria: Rethinking Grassroots Democracy?

Article excerpt


In the mid-1990s the Victorian state government, with a wide-ranging neoliberal agenda, undertook a major restructure of Victorian local government, reducing the number of councils from 210 to 78 (Williamson 2002). These changes included organisational restructuring aimed at separating the policy-making and purchasing (client) functions of local government from service provision (provider) functions (Ernst & O'Toole 1999; Murfitt, Glanville & Ernst 1996), the establishment of new financial costing and accounting mechanisms designed to ensure probity and competitive neutrality in the awarding of council contracts (Johnson 2003; Tucker 1997) and, most importantly for this paper, the reworking of local representative democracy to incorporate a new corporate approach to local governance (Burdess & O'Toole 2004; Kiss 1999, 2003).

The dual effects of amalgamations and the loss of local representatives created disillusionment among many people at local level (Mowbray 1996). In rural areas, small towns that once had a council office with local infrastructure and a local bureaucracy were left with branch offices directed from elsewhere in larger rural shires. The democratic representation in the towns was reduced to one or two local councillors and, depending on the structure of the municipality, placed based representation was abolished altogether. The institutional vacuum that this created in the towns led to the birth (or in some cases the rebirth) of local community associations that sought to redress their loss of financial, political, informational and organisational resources with new forms of community governance (O'Toole & Burdess 2004). What they had established was a range of informal non-governmental mechanisms where local people could meet to discuss, plan and execute strategies for the sustainability of their towns.

The development of local community groups has also been accompanied by local action over issues of sustainability in small towns, which, has now shifted from being merely the function of local government to that of a broader network. By establishing or re-constituting local community associations, the people in these small towns have begun to participate in local community action. The question is whether these new forms of community governance have increased the incentive and broadened the opportunity for participation in local democracy. This paper builds on two previous papers on community governance, drawing on data from a series of in-depth interviews in 2002 and a survey in 2003 of small rural towns in Victoria (O'Toole & Burdess 2004, 2005). The paper aims to explore whether the extent to which the community governance exhibited in the experiences of the people in these community associations is democratic.

Governance, liberal democracy and associationalism

While, in the past, the term governance was mainly limited to the 'affairs of state', it has now shifted to refer to a 'broad concern with a wide range of governance mechanisms with no presumption that these are anchored primarily in the sovereign state' (Jessop 1995, p. 310-311). For Hirst (2000) there are five versions of the term governance: good governance, international institutions and regimes, corporate governance, new public management and, finally, the new practices of co-ordinating activities through networks, partnerships and deliberative forums.

The network and partnership approaches depart from the old hierarchical model in which 'the state authorities exerted sovereign control over the groups and citizens that make up civil society' (van Bueren & ten Heuvelhof 2005, p 205). Networks are:

... a set of relat ively stable relationships which are of a nonhierarchical and interdependent nature linking a variety of actors, who share common interests with regard to a policy and who exchange resources to pursue these shared interests acknowledging that cooperation is the best way to achieve common goals (Borzel 1998, p. …

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