Each edition we feature the views of a Local Government Association President. The following is from Chris Vardon President of the Shires Association of NSW.
There are a number of serious challenges facing rural and regional Councils throughout Australia, not least of which is the steady retraction of services away from the bush. In NSW at least it has taken enormous courage among rural communities to develop strategies for coping and responding to this crisis. There is a widely held belief that State and Federal Governments have abandoned rural Australia.
In this context, I believe that Local Government has a very critical role to play, not just servicing rural communities, but in standing up for them. It is surprising then that during the recent NSW Local Government election campaigns we have come under attack for doing just that. In some sections of the Sydney press, Local Government has been accused of seeking to 'grab' too much power by having input into issues with regional, national or global implications.
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paddy McGuiness has even taken a stab at Local Government for being essentially too visionary - for daring to develop policies on things like the economy and the environment of our local areas.
Attacks like this tempt me to ask 'why shouldn't we?' In carrying out our core obligations to provide services like waste management, road repairs, libraries and so on, Councils are mindful of the fact that they are elected to represent their communities. Our ratepayers and residents have a right to expect a decent quality of life, unblemished by poor planning, pollution and high unemployment.
These are important local concerns but I doubt whether they can be addressed solely at the local level. Local Councils are ideally placed to hear what their communities are saying and to respond accordingly. If that means that we, at times, have to take on a lobbying role then so be it. I regard this as a legitimate attempt by Local Government to fill the void left by the other spheres of government. I also see it as a positive consequence of true grass roots democracy in action. It is simply not an option to sit back and do nothing.
The division of responsibility between the spheres of government is at times cloudy: what is clear, is that Councils themselves have limited choice in this regard. On the one hand, State Agencies tend to see Local Government as a vehicle for delivering their programs, often adding to the cost burden on Councils.
Rather than clamouring for greater powers, many NSW Councils have expressed alarm at the increasing responsibilities being placed on them. On the other hand, some of the more fundamental Council powers such as the right to set and enforce local planning policies are seen as being undermined by other spheres of government.
The critics of Local Government should realise that the issue of responsibility is far more complicated than a simple 'grab for power'. It is time for a review of Local Government and State Government powers and functions, clarifying who should have primary carriage for which areas of responsibility. Moreover, it is time also to acknowledge that Local Government is a legitimate and democratic form of government with a right to be involved in all the issues that impact on local communities, however broad ranging these may be.