Saturday, February 2, 2013

Interview with Sam Wainwright: Making Fremantle a 'social justice town'

Sam Wainwright speaking at the January 31 forum in Fremantle
on Sustainable Transport
Sam Wainwright has been a Socialist Alliance councillor on the City of Fremantle council since 2009, when he was elected in the Hilton ward with 33% of the vote. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's Mel Barnes about what he has been able to achieve while on council.


One that I'm proud of is the fact that we have made the City of Fremantle a much more worker-friendly employer. Local governments are under a lot of funding pressure, it hasn't got a big capacity to raise money, and state governments are always trying to cost shift and so inevitably council managers are always looking for ways to save money, and that includes on staff costs.

We got to a situation where the Fremantle council had a non-union [bargaining agreement], union membership was in decline, and union activity was increasingly not really welcomed, and also a spread of temporary contracts as a form of employment.

So that left someone like me in an interesting position. On the one hand, the last thing I wanted to do was to represent a city council that was leading workers rights in completely the wrong direction, on the other hand workers can only lead that fight themselves and the day to day management of staff is a management job, councillors can't get involved in it.

The solution was to bring in, debate out and implement what we ended up calling the “Employment Values Policy”. Without seeking to intervene in all the day to day direction of council staff – which we can't do – it set out some basic principles guiding city management around those matters. That established union rights and a preference for workers who have ongoing substantive work to be made permanent, not put on rolling, short-term contracts.

The union now has a much higher level of respect and authority, and the union and management now sit down and talk about employment conditions like any other workplace. So of course there's still plenty of disagreements, and things are not perfect by any means, but its reaffirmed the point that Fremantle should be a social justice town.

Yes, things are hard and, yes, the city doesn't have enough money, but we're not going to try and save money by attacking wages and conditions of staff.

There was one area of the policy that we proposed that wasn't successful. We sought to tell management that we wanted them to discontinue the practice of paying staff at the Fremantle Arts Centre and at the Leisure Centre on lower rates of pay than other staff.

That wasn't successful, which I was bitterly disappointed about, but it ended up being fought out in Fair Work Australia and the union was ultimately successful, so that's had a positive resolution as well.

Some other fantastic transformations have been a lot easier. One that I've been happy to be associated with is a new emphasis the city has got on sustainable transport. An example of that is spending on bicycle infrastructure. If you're serious about sustainable transport then you have to systematically prioritise cycling, pedestrian and public transport over private motor vehicle traffic.

An example of how that has happened is the City of Fremantle was previously only spending $39,000 a year on cycling infrastructure, which is nothing, and now it spends $400,000 a year. So that's a qualitative leap and you're already starting to see that in the actual statistics of the number of journeys.

The whole process has been supported by the Fremantle Bicycle Users Group, which I helped set up, and that's a very active, dynamic advocacy group for cyclists. That is a change that came easily and had majority support on council.

The other thing that I've been engaged with and really passionate about is trying to make the City of Fremantle a social justice council, returning the City of Fremantle to its roots.

Under this whole pressure of costs, over time Fremantle council has been jettisoning the provision of direct community services, such as aged care service, child care and other things, and when I first got onto council, the city was already in the process of getting rid of a youth crisis accommodation service that was funded by the state government but was topped up very significantly with money from the City of Fremantle and plans had already been put in train for the city to withdraw from that service which I was quite shocked about.

I was shocked because it wasn't even going to be taken to council to vote on, it was being treated as an administrative matter and the city management were shocked that I was even opposed to it.

So in that sense you can't just blame the city management, the previous elected council hadn't objected to this, hadn't expressed an opinion on these kinds of things.

But the people on Fremantle council now said: “We want to know about these things, we care about community services.”

I put a resolution to stop that youth crisis accommodation service from being let go of, that was unfortunately unsuccessful. But it really did raise the issue and we got a clear message from the community that other services [were important], like the Women's Refuge – the first purpose-designed women's refuge in Australia, which is an incredible achievement and actually something Fremantle should be proud of.

So now the review of our community services always comes to council. And we haven't got rid of any significant community services since, and the community owns those things and the community has the right to part of that discussion and debate.

I've been encouraging the city to take on the issue of domestic violence as a local government responsibility.

There's a lot of discussion in the local media about what the city can do to make Fremantle safer and what's meant by that is essentially violence on the streets on Friday or Saturday nights.

Now that's a legitimate and important part of community safety as well, but if you look at it statistically the greatest form of assault and violence taking place, in every suburb of Australia, is family and domestic violence. It's no more or less the responsibility of local government to stand up and do what it can to eradicate that kind of violence from our society than it is blokes having a fight in the street on a Friday night.

Every sector of society has to take domestic violence seriously if we're going to do something about it. So that relates to the Women's Refuge, but I just recently initiated a committee that's made proposals that will be going to council this month about things that the city can do to aid the campaign about awareness of domestic violence.