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All democracies great and small


High riseHigh-density strata title communities comprise a growing new form of local democracy.

The various components of these increasingly popular apartment and townhouse communities, including the executive committees elected to preside over them and the strata managers responsible for supporting the administration of the community, are often in the news. So too are the developers that build them.

The news is often negative, including various sorts of commercial malpractice, bullying and conflict between owners.

These communities provide a terrific introduction to the pros and cons of local democracy.

Strata title properties are ones in which the title is divided between a number of units, as small as two and as large as several hundred. The growth of medium and high density living in all Australian cities means that more and more people are living cheek by jowl in such communities.

One in five Australians may now live in strata title schemes. One estimate for NSW is that there are 60,000 schemes, including 600,000 units and many more individuals.

Not only must such people manage relations between themselves and their own properties, but they have to jointly manage common property such as the buildings, gardens, hallways, and parking spots, not to mention pools and spas and community living rules.

These modern style communities are just like old-style villages and towns. They include just as many people as many small towns dotted around Australia. But relations are more intensive. For the owners and tenants of strata title schemes this is where their lives meet politics and democracy. Their scheme becomes more important to them than most contact with local, state or federal government.

Surveys show that whatever the level of democracy, citizens exhibit similar characteristics. These include limited knowledge and interest, suspicion of office-holders, assertions of self-interest and communication difficulties.

In strata title democracy many participants know one other personally and live side by side. Strata titles also have a number of special characteristics, such as absent owners and transient tenants, making democratic processes more difficult. Often the tenants outnumber the owner occupiers.

But the characters of wider Australian democracy are evident in strata title democracy. These include the good citizens, the articulate, the disadvantaged, the petty dictators and the squeaky wheels.

Like macro democracy the politics of strata titles is more about effective day to day administration than major contentious disagreements. But it is still a great introduction to democratic politics. The American political scientist Harold Lasswell 's description of politics as 'Who gets what, when and how' fits strata title politics beautifully.

There are great benefits in community living, including friendship, sharing and common purpose. But living in a world of developers, strata managers, owners, tenants and real estate agents is often difficult too. There is lots of inter-personal conflict.

Anyone who lives, as I do, in such communities has far greater insight into the various elements of the real world of politics. There are strata title lessons in democracy about participation, leadership and making hard decisions.

Most participants lead busy, distracted lives with little time to invest in community processes. Australian politics copes with such disinterest by imposing compulsory voting but there is no such remedy within strata schemes. Absentee landlords, whose ownership is an investment rather than a life-style choice, rarely pull their weight. Their tenants are treated like aliens with no voting rights.

The leadership lesson is not just about the quality of leadership by body corporate committees but rather about how few people volunteer to take executive positions. Community organisations already know this lesson. Sometimes there is no one willing at all who hasn't done the job before.

In macro politics those who stand for election deserve more credit than they are often given because they are an equally small minority.

The final lesson is about just how hard it is to make big decisions because there are always losers and winners, those who can afford fees and expenses and those who cannot, and the usual problem of not enough money to go around. No wonder there is frequent recourse to legal advice, tribunals and courts to resolve disputes. Then the circle is completed between micro and macro politics.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, high-density strata title communities, housing, democracy



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Existing comments

The article doesn't deal with the issue of tenants vs. landlords. Voting at strata title meeings is mostly by absentee landlords, and the issues concerning tenants are not taken into account. Therefore it is far from a democratic situation.

Rev Harry Herbert | 27 February 2012  

Almost a good article - doesn't go into the personal conflict enough and that it is one's "castle" and "sanctuary" and one is confronted with conflict that has no place in one's home environment

Mr E | 27 February 2012  

Issue of tenants vs. landlords, most schemes cannot get a quorum at AGM (ie more than 25% lot owners), so its not democratic, its largely apathy by owner occupiers and non financial interest by investors. This makes decision making choices by committee even harder?

Mark Benson | 07 March 2012  

There is a web-based software system recently launched here in Australia that has been in the USA for 12 years (benchmark system in the USA) which manages the day to day operations of a residential building, communication, task tracking, recordkeeping and neighbourhood communication. Great for Owners Corp to manage their building manager / concierge. Check it out www.buildinglink.com.au

Kim | 15 March 2012  

During our twelve year stay in Strata- title management, the worst situations were with dopey executive trying to substantiate their existence. Besides being arrogant startup's,all or most lived off the managed property. I also found Stata Management to be a defacto arm of the Department of Fair Trading. Any one contemplating this type of housing should personally speak with and access the character and intelligence level of the self appointed executives.
If the property is any bigger than 2 units, don't go there. The feudalism cost me angst and heart ache, plus $5000.00 in fines..

Trevor Bates | 04 October 2012  

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