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Issue #1604      July 31, 2013

Editorial

Keep “local” in local govt

It is still unclear whether the local government referendum will be held at the time of the next federal elections. Much will depend on the timing of the elections as well as whether Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wishes to proceed with it then. The proposed amendment to the constitution would give Parliament the power “to grant financial assistance to any local government body formed by a law of a State, on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.”

The referendum was a promise that former Prime Minister Julia Gillard made to the Greens and the Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, after the 2010 elections. The federal government has argued for the change so as to remove any uncertainty over the constitutionality of the Commonwealth making direct payments to local government. Its constitutional authority to do so has come into question in several recent High Court cases.

Constitutional recognition has the strong support of the Australian Local Government Association and the Coalition supported the referendum bill in Parliament with only two MPs crossing the floor. Opinion polls suggest that a large majority of the public also support constitutional recognition of local government. But the outcome of the referendum is by no means assured. Historically, for a referendum to succeed, it has required the support of both major parties.

There are signs that the Coalition’s support is wavering. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has raised objections to the government’s decision to provide $10 million for the “Yes” case campaign and $500,000 for the “No” case. When the constitution was being drafted in the late 1890s, local government was relatively small with far fewer responsibilities. Today councils provide a wide range of services including footpaths, drainage, aged care, health care, fire-fighting, libraries, rubbish collection, art galleries and museums. It makes good sense for them to be recognised in the Constitution and be able to receive direct funding from the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth does have constitutional power to fund local governments indirectly through the states. This depends on state government co-operation and can result in delays in the provision of funds. It also gives the states more leverage over usage. State governments are concerned that the referendum could result in the federal government gaining more influence over councils by attaching conditions to funding, whereas councils are hoping for an increase in funding and possible joint projects.

The referendum as proposed is a fairly straightforward question. There are other issues related to local government reform that need addressing. Councils will still remain subordinate to state governments, which are increasingly over-riding local planning decisions and imposing inappropriate and unwanted developments. Corporatisation and contracting to the private, for-profit sector has resulted in local job losses, increased corruption, less accountability and higher costs for residents.

Forced amalgamations, such as in Victoria under the Kennett government, in South Australia and other states have strengthened the hand of developers. There has also been an increasing tendency for real decisions to be made by staff or specialist panels with the people’s representatives, the elected councillors, being moved increasingly into general policy making and overall planning.

Local government is the area closest to the people and it is far easier for smaller parties, community groups and independents to be elected to them. The rising cost of election campaigns in larger electorates is strengthening the hand of major parties and others with corporate backing. The tendency towards super-councils erodes this close relationship with communities and the likelihood of the council serving their interests. It removes the “local” from local government. Local council amalgamations are fundamentally anti-democratic.

The referendum alone will not guarantee additional funding for cash-strapped councils nor will it guarantee the future of local government – in the true meaning of local. That battle has still to be won if local communities are to retain control of their future development and services.

Next article – Obituary – Justin Feehan

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