Silly season beat up

From time to time, one of the commercial television station’s so called ‘current affairs’ programs will run a beat up story on Local Government. However, it was somewhat surprising, in early January, that the Weekend Australian newspaper ran a scathing article ridiculing the policy ideas of a small number of Councillors. Based on this, the editorial in the same edition asserted that Local Governments were running out of control and, therefore, it called for wholesale amalgamation of Councils into larger regional governments.

Appearing the first weekend after the New Year, when most people are well and truly ensconced in holiday mode, and with the Federal and State Parliaments not half way through their ‘long vacation’, President of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), Councillor Paul Bell, is correct when he describes this attack on Local Government as nothing more than a ‘silly season beat up’. He said that Local Government wants debate about its future as a sphere of government.

“But this must be sophisticated debate with serious analysis of the challenges Councils face,” he said. “Not cheap shots better suited to the London Sun than a quality Australian broadsheet.” On 10 January, on behalf of ALGA, Councillor Bell submitted a feature article responding to the Weekend Australian article and editorial, however, this was rejected for publication. In his response, Councillor Bell pointed out that although Local Government may seem mundane to some, it plays a vital part in the daily lives of all Australians. On the call for mass amalgamations to deliver more efficient service, he said that bigger is not always better.

“The great strength of Local Government is the fact that it is close to the people,” he wrote. “It is – if you like – proud about the parish pump. But the 21st century equivalent of the parish pump may be a regional airport, an upgraded section of regional roadway, a new entertainment complex or system of cycle paths.

“It may be a service engaging at risk young people in the life and work of their communities, helping older residents learn skills to help them remain in the family home, putting development applications online to save applicants time and money, or reducing the red tape faced by the increasing number of people wanting to operate a business from home. Local Government tailors solutions to suit the local circumstances. It meets and responds to community needs much more effectively than larger spheres of government because it is a creature of the immediate community… “As the Weekend Australian concedes, many Councils do a ‘superb job’. We contend that most Councils do a superb job, often in very difficult circumstances.”

Councillor Bell then outlined the various constraints Councils are operating under, such as cost shifting from the other spheres of government, increased community demand for services particularly in the area of human services, reliance on rates with no access to a growth tax, and rapidly ageing infrastructure in urgent need of repair or replacement He outlined Local Government’s vision for the future based on the following four priorities.

Reform of Federal/Local Government financial relations to ensure all Councils have access to fair funding. The Australian Government should replace the current system of financial assistance grants with a system that gives Councils access to a fair share of national taxation revenue. Local Government in most OECD countries relies on inter government transfers of tax revenue or grants for a substantial proportion of its revenue. But Australian Local Government has the lowest level of grants of all OECD countries.

Adopt a whole of government approach to funding Local Government infrastructure. ALGA has suggested the development of a new funding model for regional infrastructure combining finance from all three spheres of government and, where appropriate, the private sector.

Put an end to cost shifting by State and Federal Governments through a meaningful intergovernmental agreement on financial relations with Local Government. This is work in progress and, hopefully, will be concluded later this year.

Develop new partnerships with the State and Federal Governments to address issues of mutual concern. The Australian Government's much needed and much appreciated Roads to Recovery program is helping to address the backlog of local road maintenance work. It's a good model for future partnerships.

FOCUS believes that The Australian has failed to deliver informed and balanced coverage when it saw fit not to print Councillor Bell’s considered response to their 7 and 8 January article and editorial. For full a transcript of Paul Bell’s article see www.alga.asn.au/newsroom/opinion/2006/20060110.php