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Declining autonomy in local government

By Stephen Jones - posted Tuesday, 13 March 2007

In April 2006 the Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council (LGPMC) announced its agreement to sign the Inter-Governmental Agreement Establishing Principles to Guide Inter-Governmental Relations on Local Government Matters (IGA).

When announcing the new agreement local government ministers described it as the first in Australia’s history involving financial issues between the three spheres of government. It promised to improve government co-operation for the benefit of communities.

While media coverage of the IGA at the time was relatively minor it was enthusiastic, with claims that the agreement marked a “watershed in the history of government in Australia”.


I would like to offer a more sober analysis. My argument is that, despite the IGA, genuine co-operation will become a myth. The combination of the fiscal dominance of the federal government, the constitutional control of state governments, and the inadequacy of local government resources will continue the trend of local priorities being subsumed by state and national objectives.

This raises the question that if there is to be real co-operation between governments then is there a need for something more radical than the IGA; perhaps a “revolution” in local government is required.

The IGA represents a joint response to the long-standing issue that the federal and state governments have maintained a practice of cost shifting to local government.

For local councils cost shifting has been a double-edged sword: more responsibilities transferred from the other spheres of government without appropriate resources producing a drain on their own resources resulting in a reduced capacity to meet what councils claim are increasing community demands.

Under the IGA arrangements there is supposed to be consideration of the impact of programs on local government resources. However, agreements would be based on federal or state government priorities.

The IGA only relates to services or functions that the Commonwealth and state governments “require” local governments to undertake, not necessarily the things the local community wants from its local council. In assessing the impact of the new requirements the IGA determines that the impact on the financial capacity of local government must be “considered”.


Recent developments would suggest the IGA does little to arrest the declining autonomy of local government and will contribute to a further weakening of its capacity for democratic representation and proactive policy innovation.

The requirements introduced by the IGA will not be sufficient to redress the limitations of the constraints faced by local government. This is particularly so where councils seek to be proactive and pursue their own initiatives in areas that reflect community demands.

Are local councils worth the effort or are they really only just about roads, rates and rubbish? Should they just deliver services and become like a government department? These are questions that continue to be debated. But while the debate goes on the community is increasing its demands and expectations of local government.

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About the Author

Stephen Jones is a Perth based writer and policy analyst.

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