Current Issue #478

Montefiore: 'Pledge regret' looms for council candidates

Montefiore: 'Pledge regret' looms for council candidates

In the aftermath of Adelaide’s metropolitan council elections, Sir Monty’s psychotherapy skills have been subject to much demand.

Sir Monty’s North Terrace club is easier to access than the new hospital down the road, and there’s no problem with ambulance ramping. The club has an open-door policy to those invited in. His services as psychotherapist are not usually in high demand by comparison to his traditional counselling about the enduring quest for undiscovered caches of Old Adelaide Money (OAM). But in summer much OAM leaves town, so a recent sudden demand for new local government elected-member counselling has usefully addressed a short-term cashflow problem.

The therapy themes have been multi-faceted. Sessions in the temporarily closed-off billiard room saw patients using the table as a substitute for the analyst’s couch. Some lay on it, some on the floor beneath. Some wanted the lights on; some total darkness. All were deeply traumatised. Sir Monty took notes, accompanied by club matron, whose medical skills are more commonly limited to prescribing hangover cures for the captains of industry who make up the club’s membership. Fortunately for the rookie councillors, there’s a tradesman’s entrance, so they didn’t bump into club members using the front door. And what a sight some presented, white-faced and trembling, with doctors’ referrals letters and Medicare cards in hand.

The ailments? Shock would be top of list. Many newly elected councillors had run for office to change the world but have quickly learned that their role is simply to rubber-stamp projects, strategies and policies that senior managers demand be approved and funded. Few have anything to do with the substantial social or economic revolution that the candidates promised their electorates. They now contemplate a four-year stretch behind the bars of public office, a term to which they are now committed, but not for reasons of running. Each now is gripped by the realisation of what it feels like to be subject to the bang of the judge’s gavel, to be locked away with a curious assortment of strangers for a term of 48 months condemned to endless briefings, tedious late-night meetings and regular weekend workshops, while the rest of the family will be frolicking on the beach or sleeping on the couch. And all this, reflect many traumatised clients, in addition to their real jobs.

A second medical category highlighted what the therapy manual describes as ‘pledge regret’, the awful realisation that clients’ candidate pledges had been either plain silly (now making them look like a goose) or will be impossible to deliver. In the goose department, some of the aspirations on reflection had been the product of too much sherry when scribbling down ideas for the ‘vote-for-me’ brochure. For example, one successful city candidate had pledged to ‘Put Adelaide on the world map’. But it was already there. A quick glance at any school atlas would prove that – see, the little dot on the Adelaide Plains adjacent to Gulf St Vincent. Really! But there that pledge now lingers, tattoo-branding their reputation.

In a similar funk was another client from a distant suburb who in November had stressed the critical importance of ‘securing a future’ for her ward. But in the cold, hard light of post-polling day the realisation had dawned on her that there is always a future for any ward in any part of Adelaide’s metropolitan sprawl. It was already secured simply because of the inexorable passing of time. But there was little that the club’s matron could do to placate her as she contemplated her immediate future, marooned on a local government island, a primeval jungle of long agendas, draft motions and amendments to motions – and all in impenetrable jargon. There she must now work out her sentence, ringed by a stormy semantic sea of nitpicking debates, points of order and divisions. Not to mention confected uproars and mayors’ delegations instructing them to attend tea-and-biscuit events that no-one really wants to attend, and almost always on weekends when the rest of the family is partying, sipping mint juleps by the pool.

The regrets over candidates’ pre-poll ‘impossible-to-deliver’ pledges prompted deep reflection. For example, one client pledged to deliver “An independent, effective council that listens, and supports residents and businesses”. Another, similarly deluded, had pledged to “fix the finances” of his civic centre, demanding prudence during annual budget forecast sessions. But a quick check of the staff list had revealed that there was no such person as Prudence in the accounts department. Not even her hologram. And anyway, the finances are apparently well fixed already, stuffed in hard-to-find packets, on shelves and in filing cabinets throughout the building for the purposes of what managers describe as the mayor’s ‘emergencies’. Only the administrators know where they are, and it’s already clear they won’t be telling anyone else.

Often, it’s the little things that linger in the memory, after the sessions had concluded. One city client had pledged his electorate that he would “Make Adelaide the wine and food capital of Australia, taking the mantra from Melbourne.” Sir Monty thinks he really meant ‘mantle’ but you never know. In local government, there are many mantras, and some are more regrettable than others. There are many gurus, too. Matron has prescribed a dose of Pocket Oxford for the rookie. Who knows? It might be useful when points of order arise, during the long stretch that is a local government term of office.

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