Local governments around Australia play an important role through the provision of infrastructure, service delivery, strategic planning and policy development. While communities and residents recognise us as an active level of government working for their interests, we are still absent on the Australian Constitution. I believe it’s fair for me to say that we, as a level of government, deserve recognition to ensure governance and federalism is restored in Australia.
Since the 1988 referendum, the role of local governments has changed but the fear of undermining State Governments’ power remains. Local government is one of the oldest forms of government in Australia. As stated in the Australian Local Governance Association (ALGA) submission to the federal government, if the federal system and the Constitution are to reflect contemporary Australian practice and societal values, there needs to be amendments from time to time.
As a Councillor, I strongly support the constitutional recognition of local government with a preference for financial recognition. This preference reflects on the increased use of direct funding of local government by the Commonwealth government to achieve national objectives. Any referendum should recognise this practice to ensure local government continues to meet the needs of local and regional communities. We should be pushing for concrete change, not just a symbolic one.
The global financial crisis (GFC) has demonstrated that local government can play a role on the national stage to help ease the fallout of the GFC for the community. Never before has there been a greater need for all three levels of government to come together to debate and shape a national agenda to further maintain economic growth and community development.
The challenge ahead for local government is to maintain its current service delivery while at the same time be prepared for the changing demand and demographics within their respective communities. As they begin to change, further long term funding, partnerships and strategic planning is needed to ensure our services match community need.
The federal government has responded to the call through the appointment of an expert panel to oversee the process. It now comes down to timing and the resources available. The research commissioned by ALGA indicated that at least 68 per cent of the general population supports constitutional reform, with a majority in every state.
A referendum of such significance requires general support from all Australians. As local Councillors, we need to continue educating residents and communities of our role to Australia’s civic system and to support a referendum that will benefit the Australian population for many generations to come.
Constitutional recognition is more than just financial. It’s also about empowerment and building capacity. Full recognition of democratic local government will strengthen local government in terms of further legitimising its critical role in providing good governance and services to local communities. It would ensure its future democratic basis and that any future reforms and cooperative arrangements will incorporate the essential democratic concept of communities being able to elect their own local governments.
Constitutional recognition will no doubt strengthen the role of local government in the policy making process. My first term at the City of Monash gave me an opportunity to be involved in community development, strategic management and policy implementation, not to mention meeting many people and organisations who work hard to give back to the community. We want to be a level of government that brings confidence to the residents and communities we are elected to represent.
It’s important to mention that ALGA has representation on a number of ministerial councils and advisory committees; so local government is at the table even though it is not formally or legally recognised. Local government should not only be valued, but should also be recognised and protected as a sphere of government to be mentioned as a level of government in the Australian Federation.
To achieve complete federalism in Australia, we need to advocate and provide local government with greater autonomy through full constitutional recognition. It’s now or never! When the time comes, I urge you to tick yes!
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