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Local government ... down and out in Canberra

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 19 November 2008


Yesterday what is left of local government in Australia met in Canberra with Prime Minister Rudd for the inaugural meeting of the Australian Council of Local Government. According to the Prime Minister Rudd the meeting was supposed to "herald a new era in collaboration between the Australian Government and local communities".

Local government should not be taken in by this summit speak. The Federal Government has no direct power over local government. It remains not just a "child of the states" but in recent years under Mr Rudd's State and Territory colleagues, local government has been throttled, reduced in numbers, powers, revenue and status.

Through State and Territory enforced amalgamations local government numbers have fallen from around 900 three decades ago to just over 600 today - a 30 per cent decrease.

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Certainly non-Labor state administrations such as the Kennett government in Victoria in the 1990s cut local government numbers, but during the last decade the tide against local government around Australia has been even stronger.

The Northern Territory Administration recently cut local council numbers from 63 to 13.

In Queensland the Beattie Labor Government cut local councils from 156 to 72 and sacked over 700 elected councillors. This was done with limited consultation and with the Queensland Government threatening to sack any local government that sought to hold a referendum on amalgamation. Only federal government intervention caused Queensland to reverse this decision.

In New South Wales the State Labor government has sacked nine local councils during the last five years. Some, like Wollongong, were sacked for corruption.  Others for poor project management and cost overruns - a bit rich given the incompetence of the New South Wales government in managing infrastructure projects.

These sackings have been made worse because the electorate was not given the opportunity at the recent local government elections to vote in new councils. Instead, these communities have been left with State government appointed administrators.

State governments in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia have also conducted reviews into local government. These have been precursors to increased controls over local government, reduction in their planning powers or takeovers of some of their key responsibilities and revenue sources.  The Queensland Government's recent takeover of local government water resources further highlights such trends.

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Everywhere in Australia local government is on the skids.

It is under-resourced as a 2004 Federal parliamentary committee reported. It has no constitutional standing. It lacks independence of action. It is the only level of government where elected representatives can be sacked by another level of government.

Local government deserves better.  It is where many citizens first turn for help. It has also borne the brunt of the "sea change" movement. It has on the ground program delivery capabilities.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on November 19, 2008.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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