Ada Colau : Building a city for the people. 

Ahead of the local body elections, cheerleaders for a corporate controlled and failing status quo are demanding that voting be made compulsory. In Barcelona, under the leadership of Mayor Ada Colau and Bacelona en Comú, they are dismantling the status quo and building a city where the interests of the people come first.

AHEAD OF THE LOCAL body elections, the call has gone up from cheerleaders from within the political establishment for voting to be made compulsory. The call is based on an opinion poll conducted by an organisation with skin in the game, namely the Auckland City Council. A survey of a mere 2,000 Aucklanders found that 52 percent of respondents favoured compulsory voting. Despite the suspect nature of the poll and the fact that barely half of the folk surveyed supported compulsory voting, its been enough to generate a few headlines for the compulsory voting campaign and provide some talkback fodder.

Of course, the drive for compulsory voting suggests that the hundreds of thousands of us who no longer bother to vote are entirely at fault. We're, variously, 'apathetic', 'unaware of our civic duty', 'lazy' or we have just lost the 'habit' to vote - that's the more polite explanation for our non-voting behaviour from Otago University professor Andrew Geddis.

There's no suggestion from 'the great and good' that the fault might not lie with us non-voters but with a moribund political system that has been captured by establishment interests and confined the rest of us to the sidelines, looking on ineffectually.

Here in Christchurch for example, the local community was effectively shut out of having any meaningful involvement or say in the rebuild within months of the big quake. The rebuild has been entirely the preserve of corporate and commercial interests - and what a mess they have made of it too.

The present mayor, former Labour Government minister Lianne Dalziel, campaigned six years ago on a platform of greater community involvement and accountability. But nothing substantially changed and there's little prospect that it will be anything but 'business as usual' after this year's local body elections.

Perhaps we need a rethink. Perhaps we need to move become the establishment approved assumption that community involvement in community concerns is confined merely to voting.

While the good people of Christchurch have endured a Christchurch City Council pronounce on what's best for Christchurch - like wasting some $260 million plus on a sports stadium that will only prove to be a money-draining white elephant - I've been cheered by the example that Barcelona has set on how a city can be run differently. It might have a great football team, but its also got a great Mayor.

Former housing activist Ada Colau was elected Mayor in May 2015 and the Barcelona en Comú movement that she leads won office not on a pledge to represent commercial interests but 'to develop the city as a commons'.

Last year Colau told The New Yorker : “Public space is the place, par excellence, for democracy: this space that belongs to all of us. Therefore, this is also the space of the most vulnerable people, which is what democratic systems should prioritise: the people who have fewer opportunities. If you have little private space, you have more public space and public services—libraries, beaches, parks. It is the space to meet with others, but also it’s a space where you can be who you want to be—this is the space for freedom. And, therefore, it is a space where you can build up the city with others. So, from that point of view, the more public space there is, and the better its quality, the better the quality of the democracy.”

Barcelona en Comu have gone ahead to develop the city not as a centre for corporations and business concerns but as a place for the people. During its first year in power it held over 500 public meetings to discuss plans for the city. They were then voted on.

Among other things, Colau has halted the building of new hotels, stopped thousands of foreclosures, supported worker owned cooperatives, and formed the state’s largest publicly-owned non-profit electricity utility providing affordable electricity.

She has also restored school meal subsidies to the city’s poorest children, and has levied fines on banks that own vacant properties. Last month she ordered the first seizure of an empty flat owned by a bank.

'This empty flat will now form part of the municipal housing stock for 10 years,” said Lucía Martín, Barcelona’s councillor in charge of housing.

Colau has even gone ahead and slashed her own salary from 140,000 euros to 28,000 euros. 'Being elected to office is about serving the public good, not personal gain. It is not a career option,' she told the media.

You won't see anything similar happening here in Christchurch, where councillors have postponed putting up their own $100,000 plus salaries until after the local body elections.

This week Colau has been in the news after committing her council to restricting the number of cruise ships that are allowed to dock in the city and preventing the expansion of the city’s airport, saying: “We don’t have infinite capacity.”

"We're living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions. If we're able to imagine a different city, we'll have the power to transform it.' Colau has said.

Its a pity that a similar philosophy isn't abroad in New Zealand where, despite all the huffin' and puffin' and the jockeying for position, local body elections will only result in the maintenance of the corporate controlled status quo.


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