Local Government can

By Councillor Bernie Mullane *

It’s 9.00pm, 25 December and the rest of the family has hit the sack. It’s been a great day – 11 people for lunch that just happened to drag into the evening. One member of my family has just been told she has a serious tumour and related complications – not the best of news to receive at this joyous time; you can imagine the feeling around the table. All very understanding but deep down, feelings of uncertainty about the future.

After coming to terms with the above thoughts, I sat quietly, thinking of what events and ‘feelings’ may be rippling throughout my local community tonight – in particular, how people may be feeling about the refugees and asylum seekers in Woomera or those other places our Federal Government has allocated to them. It struck me, like a star in the night, that maybe Local Government, the first level of government in this rich and generous country, could show some badly needed leadership, and offer to assist in placing refugees by coordinating the rebuilding of some of our decimated rural and regional towns.

This is not novel stuff as we already undertake many initiatives within our community building portfolios to generate and renew infrastructure. What could be novel, however, is the coming together of a number of Local Governments to formulate a regional plan of action to connect a greater number of organisations and private developers to develop a plan of action which results in the provision of existing or new accommodation, job creation, sustainable energy projects, such as wind power and solar, and community support infrastructure.

My immediate thoughts relate to Victoria, where many thriving communities had the carpet pulled out from under them when Local Government amalgamations took off in 1993/1994. I know something of this, having visited a number of towns in Gippsland and witnessed the permanent loss felt by the people. This said, many communities have regrouped and found a new future out of what was first seen by many as carnage.

Many, however, have found it impossible to survive and continue to reel from decisions taken from afar. It is in some of these locations I believe we can offer land and community support to house people immediately who will jump at the chance of a bright future.

We should remember that our forbears invested in considerable infrastructure – above and below the ground. We have a responsibility, I believe, to see that this capital is utilised.

This ‘hard-capital’ capacity is not solely a Victorian feature – other States are in the same boat. Apart from the humanitarian reasons, we are hearing calls from the burgeoning urban areas around our capital and regional cities to ease the pressure on them and other service providers by means of providing incentives to have population growth redirected to satellite and outlying towns – some of which have lain idle for years.

I know of a number of rural locations in Victoria, such as Edenhope, where people are offering land to young city based families or others who will commit to the township. What a great way to firstly provide a home and future for a refugee family or others and secondly utilise existing capital assets for the benefit of the local and wider communities.

We are big on sustainability so let’s put our money where our mouths are and show the Australian community what Local Government can deliver – our Economic Development Units are in the perfect position to liaise with State and Federal authorities to do something tangible here – for today and tomorrow.

For anyone who says that this sort of thinking and action is not for Local Government, think again. Local Government is changing rapidly. It impacts on and is impacted by its community daily. Citizens of this country are noticing the enlarged role of Local Government – witness the cost shifting taking place with its resultant pressure on Councils to deliver more and more services with less and less dollars!

New technology and associated skills allow Local Government to deliver its services quicker, more efficiently and cheaper. Staff qualified in a whole new range of occupations are being engaged to enable Local Government to take on projects for and with our communities.

People are living a lot longer. This is placing increased demands on the human services professionals. However it is also providing a growing catchment of skilled early retirees, people who can bolster the army of volunteers this country is so proud of. Local Governments are well placed to tap into this skilled resource.

Together with over 700 Local Government Councillors and senior managers, I attended the 2001 ALGA National Assembly. I picked up a number of good ideas and met some great and committed people. I also heard the Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, speak on ‘Community Renewal and Citizenship’.

If anyone has doubts about a new role for Local Government in the 21st century, just read the National General Assembly supplement in Local Government FOCUS, December 2001. We live in exciting and challenging times. I believe Local Government, the progressive government in Australia, has what it takes to lead and show the way.

* Councillor Bernie Millane from the City of Whitehorse is Vice President of the Victorian Local Governance Association