Beyond Fear and Loathing

This is a story of local politics and community activism. It’s a true story, as objective as I can make it from my personal point of view, and I do have a point of view on the state of local democracy and the role of citizens in the decisions that affect them. More than just the local council, it’s about a community and conflict fostered within a ruling mentality of divide and conquer. The story is one of disillusionment, disregard for fairness and civility, and the struggle for change. The story is specific to a location but it is universal. It is of a certain time-frame but it is timeless.
Without doubt the events described – the absurd, the comic and the tragic – take place to a greater or lesser extent within the 560 Councils around the country. Self-interest, deal making and Machiavellian scheming are the high dramas of small town everyday life. A positive case for change in the way we do local democracy is presented, with community and council working together in partnership. A practical foundation for that change is outlined.

No place like home sets the context and location of the story, before observations on local government in Unlovely and unloved. Although, ironically, the level of government closest to the people, few people understand the role of local government or the impact it has on their daily lives. Few would be able to name their elected Councillors, let alone make a judgement about their ability to manage a job far more complex and demanding than is commonly understood.
The following chapter, The local storm in a teacup, unpacks complex relationships in a small town with a lot at stake. As a new group struggles for legitimacy and influence, in an age where people are less likely to participate in society, existing power brokers exert pressure. Punishment, vilification and deception are the defining characteristics of the ensuing rancorous conflict. A deliberate will to ignorance – the avoidance of inconvenient truths – is at play, well supported by a local government approach to community relations based on divide and conquer.
Building and then Peaking are the following chapters outlining the successes of the community response to council’s development plans. That planning takes place within a political environment is made clear. The sale of public land through confidential processes where scrutiny is avoided, then ignored, is highlighted. Tokenistic, cynical approaches to community consultation are made explicit. This is followed by Falling, an outline of the decline of the community effort, as the fait-accompli response sets in and council is rewarded for persistence. In the meantime a new politically motivated group forms with the aim of changing the council.
And we mean to go on and on and on and on relates Councillors crude and careless manipulation of information and people, disregard for professional opinion and egotistical self-confidence. This characterised the dominant group of elected Councillors as they swatted away at annoyances and impediments. But it all starts to unravel, It all ends in tears, as time and again master plans come unstuck and appalling behaviour is regularly highlighted in the media. The enormity of building a public case for change in a community long dominated by powerful interests is laid out. Making it up as you go along, based on chaos theory or the Nike approach – just do it – aptly describes the approach. And so to the campaign looks at the lies and the fears, the despair and the hope in an intensely fought local battle. The dominant group of Councillors suffer mishap after mishap as the contract of trust with the community is broken.
Love and respect re-positions this story of local politics within a broader view of our system of representative democracy, suffering through widespread ignorance and apathy. These responses – effectively the mass turning of a blind eye – support personal and political ambitions at the expense of the public interest. As citizens tune out further the condition becomes self-sustaining, a non-virtuous cycle. But the local level provides practical opportunities to break the cycle. Engaging citizens at the early stages of policy development, through deliberative democracy, will strengthen active citizenship and start to rebuild civil society.



Graeme Gibson’s book takes us on a fascinating “Rats in the Ranks” type journey, exploring the machinations of a small time council hypnotised by development dollars, forgetting its core purpose of serving the public interest.

Graeme has spent years working with others in a community struggle for change, seeking ethical and transparent leadership and here is his story. We see what happens when power, money and dominant long-term leaders work against the interests of the many, to advance their own agendas, polarising communities and risking people’s sense of place and well-being.

There are lessons in this book for anyone who’s ever tried to change things. This book should be in every TAFE and University around the country. A great read for community workers!

Liam O’Sullivan
Community Development worker

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about their local area. It is more than just an extremely well-documented story of community activists fighting overdevelopment in their local council area, it is an engrossing account of the trajectory of the local council when it comes up against that activism.

For those who have been involved in local government politics, this story is a salutary reminder of the lows and the highs of engagement at this level. For those who have not been involved, it is an eye opener and an education. And, having finished his tale, Graeme Gibson provides intelligent, proven solutions to help build accountable and transparent local government that works with its community.

Sybil Kesteven
Former Deputy Mayor North Sydney Council

Graeme Gibson’s insider’s account of a NSW local council should be required reading for all those concerned about local democracy.

Most who write about government let reality be overcome by theory and an assumption of rationality. Those who have been ‘inside the whale’ know differently. Graeme Gibson’s experience in community development has provided him with a framework in which to make sense of the reality.

In addition to the insight into local democracy as it is practiced, Graeme’s account tells us how badly urban planning, as it is practiced, does in coping with development pressures on our coastal settlements and environments. Speedily they are losing their character and quality, submerged in waves of ‘could be anywhere’ suburban sprawl. This book will help explain why and how this is happening.

It takes bravery and dedication to give us an account such as this. Commended!

John Mant
Planner and Lawyer, Councillor City of Sydney

This book is an eloquent plea for the importance of community democracy – and an education in the tough pragmatism of local government. With forensic precision, Gibson dissects a turbulent period for a small coastal town threatened with large-scale development. As a local resident reading this account, I couldn’t help but think “Crikey! Is THAT what was going on?”

Richard Morecroft
Broadcaster and Author

Beyond Fear and Loathing is both a cautionary tale for those venturing into local government for the first time and also a timely reminder about the value of genuine community consultation and engagement. It should be compulsory reading for all planners, community developers and new councillors.

Charlotte Stockwell
Former CEO, City of Kwinana

Gibson’s examination of the operation of one local government contains wisdom and humour, a certain scholarship and pages of painstaking examples of the cunning and often devious ways in which mayors, councillors and local business operatives manipulate planning decisions … the book's final chapter spells out how local politics could be more open, more deliberative, more faithful to the aspirations of all citizens not just to the moneyed classes or traditional business oriented networks.

Professor Stuart Rees, AM
Chair, Sydney Peace Foundation

Beyond Fear and Loathing is a testament to that most important quality of participatory democracy – persistence.  For anyone setting out to engage in the political process it demonstrates the importance of overcoming initial setbacks and persisting with the full range of options that the democratic process affords. Anyone coming fresh to community activism and reading this book will appreciate the honest account of the many hurdles that can be placed in their way. … However they will also take many practical insights.

Brian Smith
Executive Officer, NSW Local Community Services Association

Gibson delivers not simply a compelling, fast paced, real world account of the machinations of local government. Importantly, he ends with a clear and actionable way forward for building a better model of local democracy. Rather than theories that require major legislative change or a comprehensive disruption to the way we vote today, this book outlines a path that any group of councillors could vote to trial tomorrow.

Iain Walker
Executive Director, The newDemocracy Foundation

This is a fascinating and insightful book which sheds light on some of the more interesting events which have occurred publically, as well as behind the scenes of the local political sphere. Apart from the insider’s view, Beyond Fear and Loathing also educates the reader in a broad sense about the way government and the planning system in particular works. The book also offers an alternative to the way we are governed at a local level incorporating true community engagement and participation.

Jan Shalhoub
Ulladulla and Districts Community Forum

With a quick nod to the late gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, whose book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream inspired the title, Gibson has written an important book. It takes the reader to grassroots politics and the roles that local councils have – or could have – in our lives. … And he makes a powerful case for change and for getting people to think and rethink how they can contribute to greater participation in local government.

Glenn Mitchell
Senior Lecturer, School Of History and Politics, University of Wollongong

Just finished reading Graeme Gibson’s Beyond Fear & Loathing: Local Politics at Work. Well worth a read. The ‘local’ in this case is Shoalhaven City on the south coast, but as they say in the opening scene of The Table of Knowledge, a play about local planning rorts and corruption, ‘This is a unique story, the kind of story that could only ever take place in a place like Wollongong.’ To which the responses come… And Burwood … and Port Macquarie….  And, alas many other places as well …

Of course other levels of government are not any sweeter. But that’s not the point. This book covers local politics in Shoalhaven during the 1990s and up until the local elections of 2008. It has not been written by a theoretician, although it contains a lot of good theoretical insights, but from the knowledge gained by one person who got involved at the grassroots of community level in ‘a lot of little things’ which we are often tempted to ignore or let slide, a lot of little things that can cumulatively add up to the difference between a good society and one that is not. (p. 1)

The book could have become a depressing catalogue of local woes, as little and not so little failures of political transparency, political sleight -of -hand, cronyism and outright corruption unfold.

But it is written with an eye to educating the reader in how these things work so that more understanding and information can lead to better politics and better communities.  The lessons are not just about being convinced of the justice or good sense of your cause, but about acting smarter. To quote Macchiavelli, as Gibson does on p. 85, ‘we must distinguish between … those who , to achieve their purpose, can force the issue and those who must use persuasion. In the second case, they always come to grief.’

The book is peppered with useful quotations from the ancients to current players in the local scene, as well as thinkers who are presently charting better ways of working at the local level. After all the bruising experiences and rotten politics have been exposed, the final chapter begins with a quote from Alfred, Lord Tennyson ‘Come my friends, Tis not too late to seek a newer world.’

Let us all hope so.

Shirley Fitzgerald
Freelance public historian, former historian City of Sydney

In June 2013 the book was nominated and received an award for Journalism and Media Advocacy from the Illawarra News, an independent citizen journalism site.

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