Libs beat a path to the grassroots

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THERE is nothing quite like a good conspiracy theory. However, more often than not, the conspiracy evaporates under close scrutiny. 

Matt Watts
Matt Watts

Mind you, when it involves elections and re-elections, the Office of Regulatory Services, a political party, stacking meetings, appeals and public funding – it does prove interesting.

Questions around Liberal Party candidate Matt Watts’ tilt for leadership of the Belconnen Community Council might just be a groundless conspiracy theory, but it raises queries around whether the next move by the Liberal Party, even three and half years out from an election, is to move for control of Canberra’s community councils.

The Liberals have had a flush of success by gaining more seats in the ACT Assembly than ever before. They were so very close. Just one more seat! For four years they had door knocked, appeared at shopping malls, attended community functions and filled social media with their message. Having come so close, it should not be surprising that they would seek to extend their influence through the community councils. Having a Liberal stalwart such as Matt Watts as head of an ACT community council could certainly provide another forum for engagement with the community.

The flipside is that there is no conspiracy. It may be enough that Mr Watts is interested in community affairs. Although some are critical of the roles he has played, he has been involved with the Belconnen Community Council for some years.

This interest in the community had him put his hand up as a candidate for the ACT Assembly. The same interest, perhaps enhanced by his election experience, may have been motivation enough to make a difference at the community council level. Just because someone is an active member of a political party does not mean they are not interested in issues in the broader community.

However, adding to the Liberal theory is the re-running of the election for president. It seems that Watts ran for the first round of an election having submitted his nomination after the closing date. He won that election with just one vote and a fairly small attendance at the meeting.

When the result was challenged and the Office of Regulatory Services called for a second election, Watts responded vigorously in a press release: “We had a committee that didn’t know what version of the constitution was valid, no audited accounts in time for the AGM, poor management of the group’s records and a very low public profile for a group that was claiming to represent Belconnen”.

On April 16 there was a second election. This time there was broad interest with around 100 people at the meeting. The first vote for president was tied at 41-41. On the second ballot the election favoured Robyn Coghlan who is now the president of the association.

We certainly know the Liberals are capable of stacking meetings. Liberal Senate candidate, Zed Seselja, took current Senator Gary Humphries by surprise in amassing the numbers at two consecutive meetings to oust the incumbent. It seems that for his second tilt for the Belconnen Community Council Watts was able to secure significant support for his candidature. Had he not put in a late nomination in the first instance it would not have been so clear that he could amass the numbers.

However, there are two possibilities that might explain his strong support from Liberal Party members at the meeting. This might just be the main network that he has developed. On the other hand, it may well be that the Liberals really see a party political advantage in running a community council.

ACT Assembly member Alistair Coe has demonstrated the enthusiasm with which the new guard of younger Liberals gather the numbers and use them. It has been a hallmark of his success in winning votes from the people of Belconnen in the seat of Ginninderra. It should be no surprise that one of his close colleagues would use the same methods.

The enthusiasm of the Liberals in preparation for the next ACT election, on the third Saturday of October in 2016, should not be underestimated. The danger for all the ACT community councils in being used in a party political manner is not so much from people such as Watts as from community complacency.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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