2023 Mycelium #8 Resilience and democracy

Fifty one Mayor’s gathered at the Local Government Association on Friday and Saturday, coming from all points of the compass around South Australia. Men and women who had been elected as community leaders to preside over decisions impacting on their community, some with years of experience in local government, and about 25% of them we like me first-time Mayors and about 20% of that group, also like me, elected to the role without ever being a councillor before.

I was inspired by the Mayors who have been leading in the Riverland through the flood and who all were first time Mayors. Daily interaction with the public through the media, State members of Parliament, minister and the Premier, and tourists coming through their towns and building not just levies, but conversations and bridges for collaboration to support their people, economies and environment. The rising waters uniting them all day in and day out.  Amongst the group women like Mayor Simone Bailey, who has done almost 50 media interviews before her 100 days as a Mayor, Mayor Ella Winnall who found new friends and allies in unexpected places. Their candid and compassionate reflections, encouraged and inspired me and everyone else in the room. Dealing with natural disasters was a theme of many new and re-elected Mayors, early in their terms. For some it was bushfires … ironically, it was the 40th anniversary of the Ash Wednesday bushfires so that wasn’t far from many people’s minds or memories. Those fires changed our State forever.

I’d been given a spot to reflect on working with conflict and building resilience in the context of community and while that might seem a little pretentious having only been officially declared on 22 November 2022, our council had faced a community protest that required our second meeting to be adjourned on 17 January 2023. (There is plenty in the press and a quick google will catch you up on this if you are new to this blog.)

I didn’t say everything I would have liked to, or could have said, and do feel there is a core of a quite a good TED talk emerging. The kernel is around trust, the sanctity of our democratic processes, citizen engagement and social media algorithms.

How do we work with others who we don’t agree with, don’t trust, or in some way radically different to us?  Many of the mayors shared challenges in their chambers with councillors, but that was not my focus. Elected bodies, including local government councillors, will always have to deal with community groups who disagree with them or who protest against decisions, intimidate and challenge decision-making along the way. Some of those behaviours will be civil and organised, others will be disruptive, and some others may be more terrorist, anarchic, well-organised and well fuelled by resources and radicalised online and mobilised with social media tools and techniques.  We are well equipped to do with the civil and organised and ill equipped and don’t fully understand the radicalised, with potential for violence.

The very first Council meeting I presided over, began with a minutes silence in solidarity for police officers in Queensland lured to their death by what has now been called Australia’s first Christian terrorist attack. With three former serving police officers in the chamber I preside over, it was an appropriate action to begin in this way. I also wanted to draw a line early in the piece and set the seeds for what I believe is the relationship between all the incidents I had personally experienced in the election campaign, and expected to play out into the term …. I am not gleefully prophetic, however it is all coming to pass.

I wanted to not just warn my fellow Mayors, but rather offer up some ways of building resilience and also not to take the organising of the disruptors as isolated incidents, but further evidence of the polarisation that is happening in our country. Collaborating with the enemy, standing up to dictators, inoculating yourself and your communities is part of the gig of being a Mayor. Safety will always have primacy and that includes psychological safety. Building resilience is part of leadership, and needs to be embedded in systems, policies and processes – it is not the work of programs or reports.

Without trust in our democratic systems we undermine and provide fodder for the toadstools to pop up. The recent mismanagement of lodging of administrative forms, meaning some elected members have been stood down while this is being investigated, is fuelling those who don’t trust our systems. While each incident is an individual error, it shows the vulnerabilities of the system and feeds conspiracy theorists. I am angry that administrative errors as tiny as this put so much at risk.

The next thread in the needle is algorithms. I waved around Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Maria Reesa’s book How to Stand up to a Dictator to all the Mayors and asked them to read it. I want them to understand and learn about the relationship between social media platforms, fake news, breeding grounds for radicalisation. I also encouraged them to read Algorithms of Oppression. We need to be building good, hope, optimism and citizenship in our online discourse and presence.  I gave an example of one of the failed candidates in my mayoral campaign trying to divide the community with nationalistic jingoism, or as Samuel Johnson said in 1775: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Another failed mayoral candidate on the same ballot as me, was in the District Court on Friday being advised by the magistrate to come back in a month with the paperwork required to back up his claims that the election was out of order and the vote was “illegal”. Interestingly both of these candidates have mycelium leading to Senator Alex Antic, and who has distanced himself from those protesting against local councils.

I asked my fellow mayors to consider the time might have come for compulsory elections in local government. And in local government elections, you don’t need to be a citizen, you could have just arrived at an address into your place and been there for a month before the elections and registered to vote. This is also a dreadful anomaly and puts the democracy of local government at risk. In our capital city there are students who arrived and were registered in time to vote, with little or no relationship to our country or place they are living. This has all the hallmarks of elections being able to be hijacked by external entities. In the case of the City of Adelaide there are implications, yet to be fully tested and scheduled to be before the courts that may implicate a foreign government.

We must be vigilant and ready to adjust and strengthen our processes and institutions. We need robust engagement processes to support participation, online portals will not do it. We need to build and rebuild trust.  The 2023 Edeleman Trust Barometer is out and shows Australia is on a dangerous path as high socio-economic divisions grow.  Business is more trusted that government and seen as more ethical and competent than any tier of government,  Business has stepped in to fill the void of lack of government action over many years – and we have seen this in the leadership offered by corporate Australia in the vacuums around climate action, Uluru Statement from the Heart, sustainability.

A recipe for restoration and in my view transformation is for governments and businesses to work together to build consensus and collaborate on policies and standards that co-creates a more just, thriving, safe and secure future.  With huge numbers of SMEs in our communities and our sphere of government, I think to build more resilience we need to work more effectively with our local economies and build more resilience there – surely this is one of the key lessons from COVID – we can’t leave people behind, we need to equip them to make the transformations to the new economy and new energy environments, we need to step whole heartedly into our leadership – be bold and irresistible to  attract and create the conditions for collaboration – in our communities, between each other – that’s my theory of change for resilience and managing conflict. I also have my mayoral companions to draw on and a playlist to remind me that singing and dancing is essential for my own resilience!

We cannot avoid others whom we find challenging, so we need to focus simply on deciding, given these challenges, what we ourselves will do next. – Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy.

What are you going to do next?

CIty of Adelaide, Lord Mayor, Jane Lomax-Smith captured me in full flight 18 Feb 2023 on her instagram account.

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