After serving my first year as a Councillor at the City of Monash, I am given pause to wonder how local government is perceived by the community. The work of local government often goes unnoticed and we could even go as far and say, gets taken for granted at certain times. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in Monash’s community grants program review and to witness the positive work that organisations and individuals do. For me, the biggest reward is not personal recognition but being able to assist groups to organise their activities and programs for their constituents.
Brian Galligan from the University of Melbourne (1996:55) refers to local government’s greatest strength, “in the democratic character of the Australian polity”, as being to “represent and serve people in local communities”. More importantly, local government is not recognised at all in the Australian Constitution, which I believe undermines our federalism and governance. As early as I can remember, local government has been crying out for formal recognition within our constitution. This has been illustrated by the 1988 Referendum (only 33.61 per cent of the Australian population voted “yes”): the popular sector catchphrase, “fair funding, fair treatment and fair recognition”, has been echoed since then.
Despite this, local government has continued to deliver more and more services for their communities, notwithstanding the fact that it’s over-regulated and under-resourced. However, on the plus side, our Federal and State government counterparts have provided a willing spirit to include local government in their deliberations, for example the representation by the President of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). However, we have perhaps the personalities and leaders of the day to thank - not the system of governance that surrounds them.
The old catchphrase of “rates, roads and rubbish” still haunts the local government sector. This is quite an outdated attitude considering the evolving roles of councils and shires around Australia. The global financial crisis (GFC) has demonstrated that local government can play a role on the national stage to help ease the fallout of the GFC for the community. Never before has there been a greater need for all three levels of government to come together to debate and shape a national agenda to further maintain economic growth and community development. We are seeing direct interaction between federal government and local councils through the funding of $800 million for community infrastructure as part of the stimulus package - a great example of local government’s role at a national level.
In seeking to reconfigure our federation, first and foremost we need to strengthen local government. In doing so, we need to empower councils to work together more effectively at both the state and national levels. Today, local government has become much more transparent, accountable and capable as a sector, with public confidence and trust higher than ever. It is time to take local government seriously.
Local government continues to perform its traditional roles of managing a fair rating system, improving community services, protecting and maintaining open space and parks and preserving facilities such as libraries, sporting grounds and community centres. However, as our constituents become more culturally diverse and age, there is now a much greater demand for councils to provide a growing range of human services and capital works investment. In recent years, local government has acquired new responsibilities including childcare, tackling health, alcohol and drug problems, community safety and affordable housing. Like all levels of governments, councils react to the needs of the community they represent. These dramatic changes in responsibility and service provision demonstrate that a greater need of support, funding, recognition and co-operation is a key priority.
Local government is also playing a growing regulatory role in areas such as development and planning, public health, and environmental management. The inclusion of these new services are now taking up the budget once reserved almost entirely for traditional services and infrastructure maintenance. Councils are forced to take alternative measures that they would rather not take, such as raising council rates in an economically difficult environment.
These changes have been partly driven by community demand and partly by a range of other factors beyond the control of local government. Significantly, these factors have not only added to the range of services required of local government - they’ve also come largely without new or adequate sources of revenue. This is not to mention the increase in responsibilities handed down by state governments. The challenge ahead for local government is to maintain its current service delivery while at the same time, be prepared for the changing demand and demographics within their respective communities. As our community begins to age and change, further funding and planning is needed to ensure our services match community need.
The sector is diversifying every day, not just in services but strategic planning as well. At the latest Municipal Association of Victoria State Annual Conference, I was amazed with not just the overall unity of the sector, but the vision local government is heading towards. Motions were voted and passed on various items such as climate change policy, affordable housing and infrastructure development. This was quite surprising considering these are all responsibilities of our State and Federal counterparts, but at the same time, I am excited that the third layer of government is willing to participate and get involved.
It’s important to mention that ALGA has representation on a number of ministerial councils and advisory committees; so local government is at the table even though it is not formally or legally recognised. Local government should not only be valued, but should also be recognised and protected as a sphere of government. To achieve complete federalism in Australia, we need to advocate and provide local government with greater autonomy through full constitutional recognition.
Local governments deserve, more than ever, full constitutional recognition coupled with fair treatment and fair funding mechanisms. From what I have seen and experienced, I am confident that the federal and state governments will rise up to the challenges ahead.