Civil Society needs muscle: how can we come together and campaign in Ballarat?

There’s no doubt the pandemic has shone a light on what’s important to people and the communities they live in. The time spent apart has led us to reflect on how things will look when we come back together. What we really value. So what better time to act than a local government election and a community that’s clear that we deserve better than the tired approach to local leadership. 

So my first question was how do we come together to campaign as a community during a pandemic? I personally dreaded the election because I knew how much work it meant if I was going to be engaged and to get others to engage as well.  Turns out I was right, it’s been very busy.  But we’re really clear – progressive civil society needed a voice and platform and here in Ballarat, we’ve had a crack at doing that.

Let me just explain some concepts and then jump into what’s been happening.

Civil society is a social concept. It’s a separate public space from the state and market. Picture them as three spheres: state, market and civil society.  It’s an important element of a functioning democracy and suppressed in authoritarian regimes. For example Sombath Somphone in Loas who was an environmental activist, human rights campaigner and prominent member of civil society, Sombath disappeared snartched from the street in the middle of the day and has never been science since. We are lucky that we can challenge power in Australia and expect to be safe. As Joan Staples, legendary democracy campaign veteran, says the right to advocate is at the core of our democracy.

“Australia should once again become proud that we have the rights of advocacy and protest” – Joan Staples

Some early groups and organisations that were part of civil society include: Benevolent societies, unions, church charities, friendly societies, non Government Organisations (NGOs). social orgs, sports clubs, health orgs. There’s a subset of civil society groups that want to change the status quo, often through collective action and advocacy, trying to influence the state and market. Some of these include: community Groups and organisations, cycling groups, climate groups, enviro groups, food security, disability advocacy, LGBTIQ interest groups, peace initiatives, refugee resettlement, labour unions, and other NGO’s – to name a few.

The three public spheres: civil society, market (private sector) and state. from ‘Governance for
Ecosystem-based Adaptation
Understanding the diversity of actors & quality of arrangements’ – GIZ

Over time the size of influence of the market, government and civil society has shifted – it is dynamic. Civil society isn’t manners or top hats. It’s not being polite or about setting a specific tone of a debate. People in power often will tut tut language or tone. For example at the time of the Eureka stockade the local council tut tutted the conflict. Mona Eltahawy is a feminst campaigner from Egypt who deconstructs the policing of language. I say this because one may say it’s not “civil” to call a candidate a white nationalist or Party fascist. It is using words accurately. Civil society and civility are not the same thing – that would be a category error. Often people are policed erroneously as being too militant or too angry. People ask for change to happen slowly.

The “media” is an important element in the public sphere too. They have a role to inform voters, have an agenda setting role and can boost voices and issues. Civil society is sometimes referred to as the “third sector” the fourth estate or “fourth power” is the news media. Both are essential for a healthy local democracy. 

There’s a lot of concern about the role of the media in Australia. Former PM Kevin Rudd has recently launched a petition for a Royal Commission into the conduct of media owners on democracy. Locally we deserve good and clear reporting. The public deserves to know what candidates stand for and with whom they are doing deals or how they voted in the past. For example climate change is an issue that the vast majority cares about (84% of Australian’s want action on climate change) but are probably unaware that Cr Jim Renaldi has been pushing climate denial talking points. If a voter doesn’t know this information, but would want to know if given the opportunity, does the failure rest also with civil society along with media? Or missed opportunities to unpack campaign funding where Cr Samantha McIntosh seems to have ten times the funding of other candidates with professionally made videos, pamphlets, Facebook ads, large digital signs in the CBD and large billboard at Bakery Hill, who is paying? Or the relationships and power dynamics between candidates, such as Ben Taylor having a preference deal with an “independent” candidate who has taken the Rainbow Pledge that states:

I will always act to further equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and asexual (LGBTIQA+) people, work to end discrimination, and stand up for human rights.

I take seriously the impact that my actions and decisions both as a candidate for local council, and a councillor, can have on my local LGBTIQA+ community.

I will actively consider and consult with LGBTIQA+ members of my community and provide them with an opportunity to be heard.

Yet the candidate preferenced Ben Taylor and refused to answer questions from the LGBTIQA+ community about this agreement. Taylor is one of the worst candidates in Ballarat for the LGBTIQA+ community according to Victorian Pride Lobby Rainbow Votes. A seemingly contradictory pairing. However, some of the most fresh political commentary (general – not about the local election) in the media to date has been opinions shared with SHOUT, The Courier‘s online youth platform.

Likewise, the media has a role in reporting in a way that does not platform or validate those candidates with extremist views that are so patently out of step with community expectation. 

It’s clear from the current makeup of our Council that civil society in Ballarat has lacked coordination. This has especially been evident during the time of elections, the moment when most change can occur. Small community groups have been summarily dismissed as too fringe or too little to really be of concern.

There has also been no space for policy discussions about progressive issues like social housing or gamlbing reform before, and there’s never been a score card based on progressive issues. One way to effect change is to support good policy and have disincentives for bad ones – a conversation that is desperately lacking in Ballarat. In the policy opportunities that have been missed as well as the projects that keep being delivered on the Council dime. For those reasons, I’ve felt like civil society has needed its own platform, “Our turf, our microphone.”

“Our turf, our microphone.” 

So how did I get started? I reached out in an Australian Progress Network slack group about an idea for a group in Ballarat and ended up hearing about a similar group recently formed called Progresive Port Philip. Their about page says; 

Progressive Port Phillip is non-partisan and will not stand candidates in the Council election, nor endorse political parties. We will promote progressive policies to all candidates and raise awareness of issues and analysis. We will assess candidate profiles and their policy intentions and share this information to inform voters.

This made me think. If it’s happening elsewhere why can’t Ballarat do this too?

It’s clear to the citizens of Ballarat that there is a mismatch between council and community. For example Counsellors rejecting a carefully prepared motion from the Koorie Engagement Action Group (KEAG) – an entity created to help guide council – leading to Rachel Muir and Sissy Austin resigning from the consultative body. I, like others, watched the group of people arguing in the chamber about January 26th and proving how hostile it still was to Aboringal people, and proving too that it needs to be decolonized as Sissy Austin explains in our launch video. It is not an accident that Rachel Muir is now trying to become the first Aboriginal counsellor in Ballarat. Similarly Ballarat had one of the highest votes for marriage equality yet some councillors have been hostile to the LGBTIQIA+ community. Or about climate. Or about women’s participation and inclusion.  Sadly, the list goes on. The silent majority is progressive, so it’s time for change. 

“The silent majority is progressive.” 

For me I’m deeply interested in gambling reform (having been a whistleblower), climate, I’ve spoken up against racism and homophobia, my honours thesis was a sociological look at cycling in Hobart – I’ve entered the public debate over cycling and have worked in Wadeye, a remote Aboringal community, and saw the devastating impacts of the intervention first hand. I’ve tried to act on public issues in a personal capacity but this has limitations, something I saw firsthand when I criticised the then Senator John Madigan over his climate position (or lack of) and he retaliated by trying and almost succeeding to get me fired – luckily I was in the union they made sure I kept my job and I ended up becoming a delegate for the union  (JOIN YOUR UNION PEOPLE SHEESH!!!!). I also had experience campaigning through the Greens and being a former candidate I saw the lack of organising from civil society for a progressive Ballarat. Recently, I did some organising training through Sydney Alliance whose model was based on cooperation between civil society groups. This is why I was thinking about the need for a group.

Hazel, Sally and Matt with our launch coverage in the Courier

I met other people who had a similar view about the need for an organisation – that others saw the value in our individual groups who were doing the hard yards separately to come together and create some real impact. Soon the Ballarat Community Alliance, an association of progressive community organisations, advocating for a better Ballarat was launched. It was a team effort based on people power. We met via zoom because of Covid. There were relational meetings. The first thing we did was try and get people engaged in the election so we requested a candidate training session in Ballarat, we launched a enrolment campaign and started trying to popularise the hashtag #ballaratvotes. We then: 

  • Co-created a vision statement that was used for the pledge 
  • Created a launch film
  • Organised a forum 
  • Organised a questionnaire
  • Created a scorecard
  • Mobilsed groups to get active 
  • Fundraised
  • Created a platform for policy discussion and so far have discussed many issues that are never talked about during an election

We have given candidates the opportunity to talk about issues that are not usually given a platform. This has all been achieved with hundreds of hours from volunteers, through people power. I want to than everyone so far for helping, it’s been a massive effort.

We could have done things better but we have been trying our best amid the time constraints! We’re all volunteering for the love of it, around our jobs. We’re not being paid for it. We’re independent and nonpartisan. We want a progressive council. 

“Power with, not over”

Why Alliance? 

A model for organising is the Sydney Alliance based around the idea of “Power with, not over.” I attended training through the Sydney Alliance and learnt about how they make change and campaign on things like housing or community energy.

When you challenge the status quo there’ll be push back from those in power. Amanda Tattersall is the Founder of Sydney Alliance and Co-Founder and Chair of Get-Up. Far right politicians, like Eric Abetz, love to call Get-Up a front and have done everything in their power to smear them but have failed. We expect the same treatment albeit on a different scale and our scorecard has been described by a bad faith ex-Liberal politician as “propaganda,”. These attacks are predictable and expected. Perhaps the Liberal dominated council and their candidates are the ones who need to change to be in step with the community and push for better policies? What we weren’t expecting was that these bad faith attacks to be delivered by the ABC but that’s what happened. The scorecard was attacked as being partisen – when we gave one Labor endorsed candidate a yellow light and one independent and one animal Justice Party candidate a green light. If any of the Labor or Green candidates received a red cross from rainbow votes or didn’t accept the basic science of climate change then we would have no hesitation in giving them a red light. It was unapologetically progressive. Perhaps instead of attacking us for pointing out progressive candidates the scrutiny should be on the out of touch right wing Trump-lite politicians?

Onward and upward! 

The iron rule for organising: “Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves” 

There was a clear need to create a group to bring these issues together when looking at the failure of council to reflect the whole of the community it was representing. It was through this realisation and the connectivity between many of these small organisations and community groups that the concept of Ballarat Community Alliance was born. It’s what could be described as a “strong organisation”, the characteristics of which are: 

  • Look outward & proactive on pressures, 
  • Collective support & leaders, 
  • Responds to deep causes, 
  • Justice Values

Although this group came together as an informal association before the election, Alliance members are really clear that there is a need for it beyond this current election cycle and that there’s an awesome opportunity to grow it into a broader based coalition to help support the policy debate and to keep the next Council accountable to their promises.

I think the Ballarat Community Alliance will have an important role to hold a space for community discussion and organising around issues. There’s potential for a physical space for the community to come together around issues and hold training to build our collective capacity. We will need to work on a governance model and strategic direction and we’d welcome anyone to join who can bring their passion and expertise into the mix. We’ll do this after the election and a rest because I am tired!

Please email to get involved, we would love to hear from you!

And if you want to learn more about organising please check out the ChangeMakers Organising School.

Further reading:

Staples, J. 2019, ‘The Right to Advocate is at the Core of Our Democracy’, in REBALANCING RIGHTS: Communities, corporations and nature, The Green Institute, 

Image credit: Travis Price.

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