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The best and worst of local government


Australia made from a giant snake with states and local government areas represented by increasingly smaller snakesLocal government has been uncharitably described as a 'nest of vipers'. It has in modern times had the potential to be much more, and an active creator of civil society. Local government is, as I once described it, the most direct experience that most citizens have of 'democracy at work'.

Perhaps that is why, given many Australians' experience with local government in certain areas, they resoundingly voted down, in 1988, the first proposal to include local government in the Constitution as a third tier of government along with federal, state and territory governments.

And perhaps the rather impoverished history in Australia of councils and boards acting as sealers of roads, rubbish collectors and satisfying recognition (of councillors and other local worthies) to benefit property and business owners, it was a little early to expect a change in popular culture.

Some of us who lived in Fitzroy in Melbourne's inner north, for example, found it embarrassing to watch the shenanigans of its then (prior to 1992) council as personalities and egos ran riot.

And yet we have a softer view of local politics when it comes to cherished icons of a region to which we are attached: just four years after the referendum, the same people of Fitzroy arose as one and opposed the Kennett-Government-appointed commissioners' decision to shut down the run-down Fitzroy pool.

The un-valued element of local government is its capacity to lift the vision of its people from NIMBY-ism and road maintenance to a sense of community and attachment.

Australians are, however, now thoroughly disengaged from politicians at a state and federal level, a recent poll finding that only about a third of those surveyed had any interest in the behaviour of our elected representatives, compared with double that proportion just a few years earlier. We tend to be disgusted at 'politics' and bad behaviour, rather than the idea of collaboration in the common good.

But when it comes to constitutional change, we are very conservative indeed.

We have been offered another chance to raise 'local government' to the lowly status of 'no worse than the other tiers'. The referendum on constitutional recognition announced on Thursday by Prime Minister Gillard arises from the work of an independent expert panel appointed by the Government in August 2011, and a joint select committee established on 1 November 2012 to consider its recommendations.

Historically, local government was used in the early years of the military colonies, before the states gained their own status, to 'manage' the infrastructure of a growing, but sparse, settlement.

But since the property franchise was (gradually, and dilatorily) abolished, it attained — across the various states that created their own statutory versions of local government — for a short time (maybe two or three decades) an important quality of representative democracy in action, as well as a source of funding and activities that state and Commonwealth governments were unable to deliver.

Australia is already governed by often-deadlocked state and Commonwealth parliaments and public servants. Why would we want to add to that complexity?

In its discussion paper the expert panel looked at the likelihood of constitutional recognition being supported by the electorate. They decided that the options to be considered had to be able to 'make a practical difference; have a reasonable chance at a referendum; and resonate with the public'.

In its discussion paper it identified four kinds of recognition: symbolic, financial, democratic, and through federal cooperation, none of which were mutually exclusive.

And in the end the Panel came up with a horse designed by an uncooperative and non-unanimous committee (so very Australian!): a minimal scheme that would (a) recognise that only state and territory had the power to establish and manage local government bodies elected in accordance with their own electoral laws, and (b) basically, amend the Constitution to get over the High Court's decision in 2009 casting doubt on the Commonwealth's power to fund local government directly by providing (italics are the amendments required):

The Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State or to any local government body formed by State or Territory Legislation on such terms and conditions as the Parliament sees fit.

That's it. That's what the panel recommended. And it also said that there had to be bipartisan support for the amendment and an intensive marketing campaign to persuade the voters to support the referendum, because another failed one would damage the existing status of local government across the nation.

My question is, Why? Why now? Why focus on a teeny tiny constitutional change now, when the people are disengaged from modern parliamentary politics, disgusted by the way both major political parties and the mindless happily consign women and children seeking refuge in our country to indeterminate detention in gulags in other countries, and see access to justice frustrated by penny-pinching and short-sighted cuts to the institutions that are meant to reflect our national character and values of a fair go for all?

Will they do it? Will both sides of politics endorse this as a great idea? Will local councillors agree? Will the people decline to support such a referendum in the current social and economic climate?

Yes. And it makes my stomach turn. 


Moira Rayner headshotMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is the author of the now out-of-print book Rooting Democracy (1997 Allen & Unwin).

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, local governments, referendum



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Existing comments

Is any time the right time to propose constitutional change? It has proved so difficult in the past that one wonders why we even try. Yet because of the fiscal imbalance between federal, state, and local levels it is imperative that the process of returning commonwealth tax revenue to the states and municipalities in an ordered, legitimate, and transparent way is beyond challenge on simple technical points. Let's hope that this proposal is such a small change that it will be accepted. If so, then it might point the way for future changes. We could do a lot worse than develop a pattern of always having a number of referenda with every election so that the constitution became an on-going project rather than something engraved on stone by remote founding fathers whose names most people would have trouble recollecting.

Ginger Meggs | 09 May 2013  

As I wrote to Anthony Albanese yesterday, he didn't mention the bit that will swing support to his Local Government proposal -- ABOLISH THE STATES!

jaymz | 10 May 2013  

It was interesting to read the penetrating comments of Moira Rayner on the proposal to change the Australian Constitution regarding local government. With the recent decision to proceed with this referendum, it is essential to discuss this matter widely and wisely. As a newly elected Councillor, I have total support for the change because it will legitimate practices which have operated for decades but which are now perceived as being under threat. I refer to the money flow from Federal coffers to fund local activities. There is no expectation that the vote will cost the tax-payer more money, simply that it will be legal at last for the national government to fund local government without its grants being challenged in court. As for the timing of the move, Ginger Meggs is correct in asking if there is a “right time”. However, as a resident of NSW, I would certainly say that this is as good an occasion as any to achieve security for local government, at a time when the future of this third tier as we know it is under threat. The recent release of the suggestions by an independent local government review panel in this State makes it clear that changes are needed in the current operation of our 152 Councils. Such changes will occur and there will be amalgamations. Our map of local government will change, and these changes will be felt alike in urban and rural NSW. Whether they represent long-term improvement is to be seen, but their potential success will be enhanced if they are based on sound financial arrangements with the Commonwealth. It is sad that local government has been described as a “nest of vipers” but it must be noted that this is “in certain areas”. Even sadder is the picture we have formed in recent years of both national and state politics. However, just as we know that in both Canberra and metropolitan legislatures there are a significant number of ethical, generous and dedicated politicians, so we also know that in many parts of each State there are excellent local Councils. Wouldn’t it be unfortunate if this proposed referendum was to fail because of the failings of a few? Opponents of the case could cite examples of faulty decisions made by Councils, or about unethical individuals in many of them, but this should not destroy the future of the one level of government that is truly answerable to the electors. We need a secure third tier, especially at a time when confidence in the other two levels is under threat. Don’t miss the opportunity to support your own elected officials – there is unlikely to be another opportunity to do so in the near future.

Dennis Sleigh | 10 May 2013  

"Don’t miss the opportunity to support your own elected officials" - elected by ??? I think turnout in my local area is about 30%. I think I'll vote no. Local government was once small and looked after its few responsibilities cheaply and well. In more recent times state governments have pushed more and more responsibilities onto local government, and mine has raised rates well above the inflation rate for the last 20 years. (They also lost a lot of money in bad investments). So I'm wary of the idea that local governments should receive more funds directly from the commonwealth because they don't have the expertise to deal with that. More funds to them will mean an expanding bureaucracy at that level, with no reduction of the state government bureaucracy. Let the state Department of Local Government apply and spend the funds the commonwealth is prepared to spend on local projects. Instead of tinkering with an already unsatisfactory arrangement I would prefer to force the parties to sit down and think of a new and better way of doing things.

Russell | 10 May 2013  

I'm sorry Russell if your local government glass appears half (or even less!) empty. In my council area the voter turnout last year was 74% (which is pretty good given that a substantial number on the roll are absentee landowners) and informal votes were only 3.4%. Our council is generally well respected in the community and most people I suspect find it much easier to deal with than the state and federal levels. Yes, the breadth of local government's role has increased, and yes rates have increased to cover those extra costs to offset the fall in federal and state funding for local government, but I don't know many people who would prefer to have their parks and libraries and home care run from Canberra or Spring Street by a department whose minister was elected by voters in East Gippsland, or the inner city, or Western Australia, or FNQ. The situation in my area didn't happen by chance; a lot of people have put in a lot of spade work over a long period of time. It may sound trite, but we get, more or less, the government we deserve.

Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2013  

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