Democracy at local level

Opinion by Dr Neelesh Gounder.

The Fiji Times. Saturday, May 21, 2016

A French documentary titled Demain (Tomorrow) held its US premiere in December last year at the UN headquarters. It was also shown to the delegates of the 195 States present at the COP21 in Paris. The documentary features examples of activism related to participative democracy in India, United Kingdom and France.

The Indian story is particularly striking. It describes how Elango Rangaswamy in the village of Kuttambakkam (Tamil Nadu state) turned a place of violence, illegal liquor trade and pollution into a model for representative democracy.

The lesson of the documentary is how local administration can create a positive impact on the lives of the people. By hosting the premiere, the broader consensus emerging out of UN headquarters is that decentralisation of policy will remain a core aspect of democratic governance.

Focusing on everyday solutions, the documentary provides interesting lessons about the benefits of participatory local democracy, which is about increased local decision making and participation by local communities.

The documentary possibly offers a few lessons about inspiring local democracy in Fiji. Although there are arguably several ways of achieving democracy at local level, this article explores what role the local government framework and institutional setting can play.

Local governments Local government is one form of political decentralization. Key roles of local governments include promoting health, welfare and convenience of the inhabitants. A decentralized political system such as elected local governments is where power is distributed more widely to autonomous local units of government. It involves transfer of national government responsibilities or functions to a sub-national level of government.

Thus having a local government means transferring some portion of power and public budgetary responsibility to elected local governments. Political decentralization such as this does not seek to weaken the central authority. It is also not aimed at creating a preference for local leaders in relation to central leaders. It is basically about sharing governance at the local level so that services are more responsive to the needs of the local people.

In practice, it involves institutional arrangements which authorize local governments to achieve two outcomes. First, it provides the voting power to choose local leaders and other representatives. Second, it is the ability to make, implement, monitor and evaluate local policies (functioning and administration).

A particular characteristic of effective local governments is devolution rather than deconcentration. Devolution involves both administrative and decision making authority and not simply transfers of administrative functions.

Transfer of both administrative and decision making authority is necessary to create a distinct sphere of government which is able to exercise complete autonomy.

Democracy at local level

Local government elections allow the public to choose their local government. By choosing the candidates with appropriate ideas and abilities that are acceptable to them, the citizens can influence the type of local community they live in.

Local government elections therefore allow ratepayers a voice in local governance structures, processes and outcomes.

The ratepayers pay town/city rates. The rates are similar to taxes we pay such as income tax and VAT. Taxes ensure that government is able to provide essential public services such as schools, roads, rule of law, etc.

Rates collected from ratepayers allow the local government to provide services such as waste collection and management, drainage cleaning, libraries, building inspection, licensing, certification and enforcement, recreation, etc.

Since ratepayers pay for local services, it is decisive that they be allowed to choose who runs the local government as well as contribute and monitor decision making affecting their local suburbs. It gives a say to those most directly affected by local government policy.

Choosing your local government 

Local government in Fiji dates back to 1877 in Levuka. Currently, the Local Government Act in Fiji provides for the establishment of local government councils, defines their functions and powers and contains rules to their election, functioning and administration.

Local government councils have been run by unelected special administrators since 2009 when the military-led government installed special administrators after terminating Fiji’s elected local government councillors and mayors.

At that time it was claimed by the permanent secretary of the Department of Local Government that special administrators “will take charge of the councils during the transition period”.

Currently, the government is in the midst of reviewing the Local Government Act. The review was first mentioned in November 2014 by the Minister for Local Government.

The mention of the review was in stark contrast with the Minister’s maiden speech in parliament just two months earlier where he had mentioned “Now we have an elected Government in place it feels only right that we have elected local governments as well”.

In a surprising twist, the Minister later reasoned his change of stance by arguing that election of municipal councillors will be held up until a review of the Local Government Act is completed.

The rhetoric since September 2014 seems not only ambiguous but also unhurried. In September 2016, the Bainimarama government will complete half its term. It is rather surprising why it has taken so long to extend democracy at local level.

The government is perhaps apprehensive about the move to governance at the local level which runs counter to the last seven years of a totally different kind of political culture. It is also perhaps concerned about what local government elections can tell us about national politics.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the outcome of the review. In particular, how it defines political decision making and the powers of elected office holders including mayors within local governments.

The outcome must provide locally elected councils real powers to shape local areas. This would be a fundamental step towards nurturing local democracy by getting people more engaged within the local political process.

Additional remarks

There is a convincing democratic rationality: involve people to make decisions that impact the most people. Participation by women and men is also a cornerstone of good governance.

As ratepayers, local communities should have adequate arrangements to make local choices that will improve their suburbs. It’s therefore important that government treats reform as part of a series of activities to engage communities and strengthen democracy.

Democratic local governments can play an important role in helping communities meet current and emerging challenges.

Designed well, local governments can become natural partners with the national government in enhancing the provision of local infrastructure, safer communitaies and boosting social cohesion.

* These are the views of Dr Neelesh Gounder, and not of The Fiji Times or of USP where he is employed. He tweets at @GounderNeelesh