A renowned and well-respected philosopher once wrote that “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum… That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

I mean no disrespect to any particular councillor or political party, but from what I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, it seems those words wouldn’t be out of place in the introduction to the 2016/17 Brisbane City Council budget.

We live in an era of great change. New challenges are presenting themselves and new solutions are emerging in response, but generally speaking, this budget is a rusty relic of an approach to city governance, financial management and urban planning which probably should’ve been abandoned years ago.

Obviously this budget isn’t all-round terrible. In fact, it’s strikingly mediocre. There are a few major funding allocations that make a lot of sense, and a wide range of smaller initiatives that I genuinely believe do and will continue to make this city a better place to live. My decision to vote against the various budget programs should not be misinterpreted or misrepresented as a vote against every single item and allocation within those budget programs.

Many of the funding allocations make a lot of sense.

But when I turn my mind to examples from cities around the world of the kinds of changes we could be making… of the kinds of projects we should be funding, I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on some amazing opportunities.

When I think about the challenges of climate change, of rising homelessness, of an increasingly shaky local property market, of social isolation and wealth inequality, I can’t help but feel deeply disappointed at how little we’re doing to prepare our city for an era of economic and environmental volatility.

I could talk at length about what the drafters of this budget should have done differently, but I have very little confidence that the current administration has any significant desire to take on my suggestions or work constructively with non-LNP councillors. This view is based on the opaque and un-consultative nature of the budget drafting process I’ve just witnessed. I’m beginning to feel that the ibis out in King George Square are more interested in productive, policy-focussed conversations than some of the councillors in this chamber.

City Councils around the world are adopting participatory budgeting strategies to give ordinary ratepayers significantly greater direct input into how their money is spent. Unfortunately, here in Brisbane, we don’t even give non-LNP councillors any meaningful input, let alone residents.

As one small example, I’d like to read into the record a few excerpts from my email to the Chair of the Finance and Economic Development Committee regarding the budget. Noting of course, that Councillor Adams did run a more transparent budget estimates session than some other councillors, and I’ve thanked her for that. Excerpts of the email:

“Dear Councillor Adams,

Please find attached my budget submission for the 2016/17 financial year for the Gabba Ward. Please reply to confirm you’ve received this submission and that you are able to open and view the attachment.

I would like the opportunity to meet in person to discuss my submission in further detail, and to share other proposals for reducing council expenditure and increasing revenue which I didn’t include in my submission.”

Then in the email I went into a bit of detail about a few local priority projects, before writing:

“Please advise a time and date that would suit you to discuss my budget submission further.

Thanks for all your hard work.

Warm regards,

Jonno”

Here’s the only reply I received:

“Dear Councillor Sri,

Thank you for your email of 6 May 2016.

I acknowledge receipt of your submission.

Yours sincerely

Councillor Krista Adams”

That’s it. No dialogue. No meaningful consultation. No acknowledgment of my request for a meeting. Is it any wonder then that I have so little faith that my perspective will be heard and respected in this place? That I struggle to see the point of engaging in debate when many councillors appear unwilling to see across party lines and engage in genuine cross-party dialogue? When they’ve already made up their minds? I expect some councillors in this chamber will defend the administration’s approach saying, “That’s the process for all councillors, whether you’re LNP or not.”

But my point is that we need not and should not settle for such an adversarial process.

We can do better. Every councillor in this chamber, regardless of their political alignment, has something meaningful and constructive to contribute to the budgeting process. To perpetuate a system where the talents and insights of so many councillors are ignored, on the shallow pretext that they can share their views in council debates after the budget has already been finalised and released, is undemocratic and a disservice to the people of Brisbane. I don’t say this lightly, but the lack of accountability, transparency and consultative collaboration is deeply troubling.

Overall, I believe this budget is characterised by two distinct flaws:

  1. An absence of any meaningful commitment to social justice.
  2. A general failure to prioritise projects that improve resilience and adaptability.

Australia is in the middle of a housing affordability crisis. Brisbane’s property market is on a trajectory disturbingly reminiscent of American cities before the GFC, where local government representatives like us failed to plan for and mitigate against the risks of a property market collapse that caused widespread homelessness.

In this context, it is shameful that a budget of $3 billion allocates only a couple hundred thousand dollars towards housing support and homelessness services.

I have little patience for statistics about the number of free haircuts that were provided by unpaid volunteers at Homeless Connect. If homeless Brisbanites are to get back on their feet, they need a lot more than haircuts. They need affordable housing.

Right now, hundreds, if not thousands of houses and apartments in this city are sitting empty. Brisbane City Council should be charging higher rates on empty properties so that investors have a stronger incentive to rent them out. We should be setting aside money to acquire more of these properties for use as crisis accommodation and community housing.

I have no patience whatsoever for buck-passing excuses that housing is a State issue. This is our problem too, and we shouldn’t wash our hands of it.

Brisbane City Council is far bigger and more powerful than your average city council. I’ve frequently heard council officers refer to BCC as functioning more like a small state government. Historically, Brisbane City Council played an active role in providing affordable housing, and I can find no legislative document stating that housing is exclusively the responsibility of the Queensland government and not city council.

We spend millions of dollars on road-widenings, graffiti removal and ornamental fountains, and councillors can stand here with a straight face and tell me that we don’t have the money for housing? That it’s not our responsibility? If a man falls down in front of you on the street, would you not stop to help him up?

Council policies are actively exacerbating the current housing crisis. You’re the ones rezoning land so that developers can knock down affordable boarding houses and Aboriginal hostels and replace them with unaffordable dogboxes. You’re the ones enforcing laws against large sharehouses that young people live in because they can’t afford any other option. You’re the ones encouraging an unsustainable construction boom fuelled by easy credit and speculative property investment that drives up prices and locks first homebuyers out of the market. And your only solution is to keep increasing supply until the market collapses. As though that’s worked so well in the past.

So when I say this budget lacks a meaningful commitment to social justice, I mean that councillors who support this budget are neglecting their duty as elected representatives to prioritise the needs of the most marginalised and disadvantaged members of our society. Council might be doing something, but it’s not doing anywhere near enough. The money allocated towards homeless support services is chicken feed compared to spending in other areas, and to say that we can leave housing affordability to the magic of the free market, or to other levels of government, is a dereliction of duty.

If council can borrow money to fund the metro, or a highway to the airport, you can borrow money to buy affordable housing. The long-term savings and social benefits will more than justify the cost.

This brings me back to the quote I shared at the outset. The spectrum of debate surrounding the content of this budget has been uninspiringly narrow. Councillors of all sides seem to be playing our parts in some kind of theatrical production. But no-one’s watching. We don’t even allow cameras to film the supposedly public debates in this chamber. So who are we all performing for?

When I talk about a narrowing of the parameters of debate, I’m referring in particular to the “hands in the air, there’s nothing we can do” sentiment that we have to choose between funding a pedestrian crossing in Nundah or an intersection upgrade in Inala. That we have to choose between flood mitigation in Fairfield or a park upgrade in Wynnum. The simple truth is that we don’t have to choose. In the words of that cute little girl in the burrito ads, why don’t we have both?

Minor infrastructure upgrades that improve pedestrian and cyclist safety offer far better returns on investment than major road-widening projects. Making it safer and easier for people to use active transport for short trips reduces the number of cars on the road and saves us millions of dollars in road resurfacing and upgrades over the long-term, not to mention the wider positive impacts in terms of health and fitness, air quality, carbon emission reductions, community connectedness and increased foot traffic for small businesses.

I’m told that even the RACQ said the Kingsford Smith Drive widening project didn’t represent value for money. But those local safety upgrades do.

If you really believe those big flashy major road projects are more of a priority than the local stuff that materially improves residents’ lives, I probably won’t be able to convince you. But I say again that while interest rates are low, we should be borrowing money to fund those local priority projects, because they will save us money down the track.

This is a risky budget. It is risky because it clings to the same old methods and priorities in spite of significantly changed circumstances and future challenges, including an unstable climate and a rates base that’s increasingly vulnerable to a property market collapse.

I hope next year the administration councillors will involve the rest of us in genuine, meaningful discussion so we can all work together on the budget, rather than shutting us out of the conversation and forcing us to resort to adversarial debates after the budget has already been released.