Bismarck’s apocrypha and the City of Port Phillip

Bismarck’s comment about sausages and legislation is probably apocryphal but it keeps being repeated because it is so apt.

How apt the blog discovered when it spent four and a bit hours at its local Council’s meeting to make a three minute submission which was misunderstood by one councillor; provoked a Kumbaya moment in another who was having palpitations about ‘negativity’ when obviously we should all be channelling ‘positivity’; and subjected to managerialist obfuscation by staff commenting on the subject.

The whole four and bit hours were made worse by the fact that it is an election year and every Councillor seemed to have to say something on just about every issue – however irrelevant, incoherent, misinformed or inappropriate it was. Ironically, on a really important issue – the adoption of a commitment to the Rockefeller Foundation inspired 100 Cities Resilience program – there was only one speaker who opined that it “was a good thing.”

It was a very busy Council meeting with a packed gallery objecting about a host of things. The blog was there to make a further submission on the Council’s attempts to develop an arts policy which have been about as effective as the Council community consultation and risk management communication strategies the blog has written about before. The blog hasn’t supplied links to the posts because, for communication professionals, it has been told they make reading which will provoke some combination of fury, dismay and laughter which might be health threatening. Appropriately the debate on the arts review took place in the week the Council had closed down a bookshop on the basis of one complaint from a resident and a technical reading of a planning regulation. The protestors against this got as much joy out of the meeting as the blog did.

Among the controversies were complaints about the proposed demolition of a beachfront building; the building of a new lifesaving club; the bookshop issue; the arts review’s impact on the Gasworks Arts Centre; some searching questions about Council finances from someone who might stand as a candidate later in the year; some less searching questions from serial candidates; and, some other issues which the blog didn’t catch because it was trying to read a magazine to avoid dying of boredom or leaping up and declaiming that the councillors and staff owed it four and a bit hours of its life.

The demolition debate was fascinating. The blog would be sorry to see the Art Moderne pub involved go and the last thing our city needs is more high rises on the beachfront. But the issue was complicated by the facts that successive heritage studies from the 1970s onwards had failed to list the building and that someone (the City of Port Phillip. Duh!) had already issued a demolition permit. The Council decided that it ought do something about this retrospectively and flick pass the problem to the State Government to ask for a heritage listing – a ploy treated with justifiable contempt by the local MP – although it may have temporarily assuaged local feeling.

The lifesaving club was a classic. Some of the original group who had built it didn’t want it demolished and asserted that it would last another hundred years. However, as the blog walks past it most mornings, it thinks the brickwork deterioration looks to be more severe than a pointing problem. Another group, who live across the road from the club in homes worth somewhere in the seven figures also objected. Most of them said nothing about concerns about blocking their million dollar views of Port Phillip Bay and a popular argument was that the new building would contain too many toilets which might encourage paedophiles. It is down the road from a Roman Catholic institution but that’s still a very long bow – particularly as the inhabitants of this particular centre would almost certainly never have been guilty of what some of their male counterparts did and also have an enviable record of taking in refugees. Nevertheless, be warned, if any development you are promoting includes public toilets it’s the new objection de jour.

 Anyway the blog managed to use up its allotted time although the record Council staff sent it to check did seem to lack some of the detail and flavour of the comments. The basic blog objections were: that the review was inadequate (actually pretty shoddy – for example it trumpeted Council’s ability to attract arts sponsorship by comparing itself to the National Gallery of Victoria); the review really only produced a series of recommendations for more work which might, given the time it took to get the basic review document finalised, take another year at least; would increase Council staff and bureaucracy; and, that it was odd that the Council was developing a new policy while it was simultaneously re-structuring its arts bureaucracy.

The staff answer to the staffing question – posed by a Councillor who wanted to know if the blog was right about increased staff – was something that even Sir Humphrey would have admired and adopted like a shot as a new technique in obfuscation. “No, but if we do increase staff it will be consistent with Council’s commitment to prudent financial management”. The same Councillor who asked about the staffing misunderstood what the blog had said about the restructure, and form following function, and the immediately responsible staff were a bit at a loss for a reply to her garbled question.

Fortunately, the Council CEO rode to the rescue, just as she did on the bookshop question. The bookshop problem was caused, she said, by “ambiguous communication” and the restructure issue was not appropriate because there had been no restructure – the Council had merely amalgamated two departments.

The bookshop has now closed. The amalgamation is still not a restructure and the CEO, at a recent Council meeting, was awarded the maximum possible performance bonus. The blog is confident that the CEO is as outstanding as councillors say, but one wonders whether they have followed the worldwide debate on the effectiveness of (and the difficulty of measuring) incentives and bonus payments.