There’s more to councils than spivs and shysters
My first brush with politics was in local government. I think I was eight.
My father was an independent ‘alderman’ on our local municipal council. A significant part of my youth was spent standing on polling booths, pounding the pavement to deliver Dad’s election newsletters and fielding constituent calls after school before Dad got home from work, as my older brother refused to answer the phone.
I remember one year standing on a polling booth for Dad where the big issue was council amalgamations. Dad was strongly opposed. So there I was, arguing the case for grass roots democracy against the monolith of big council bureaucracy.
“Your voice would no longer be heard”, I declared, terribly despondent that my new found passion for politics did not seem to be shared by those trudging up to the council chambers to do their duty.
So you can imagine my confused excitement when Dad won. Despite the absence of any apparent community outpouring , catching us all up in some pre-obamaesque moment – we got the desired result – they said no to amalgamation.
We all seem to have something to gripe about when it comes to our local councils. You could argue we often love to hate them.
Everyone has their story about their ‘bloody local council’, a Bob Jelly or some smarmy young political wannabe trying to impress their head office bosses for state preselection. It is these stereotypes that made programmes such as Seachange and Grass Roots so entertaining.
While Labor’s recent scandals in Wollongong demonstrate such stereotypes can ring true, it is unfair to tarnish the hundreds of other committed local community representatives, who put their hand up to serve, with this brush.
For this reason it is not surprising that if you try and reduce local representation on councils, through, say, forced amalgamations, the community does rises up, while muted, in devastating defiance.
My earth shattering theory on this is that people know that Government doesn’t always get it right – a big revelation I know. What they want to know is that when it goes wrong, they can front the person they elected to do something about it.
Better that your Council representative is the woman who buys bread from the same bakery as you on a Saturday morning, who lives around the corner, than some Kevin you’ve never met.
Now it is true that there is significant room for improvement in local government. One of my core criticisms of the Rudd Government’s policy on Local Government is that they are quite happy to splash around billions of dollars in borrowed money to councils, yet expect nothing in return from councils in terms of reform.
This is an area where reform would genuinely make a difference to people’s day to day lives. Those who work in Councils know what these reforms are. The problem is that these reforms rarely happen.
There is insufficient incentive for councils to reform themselves or work more clearly together to get good outcomes within regions. The penalty for doing nothing, and supporting the status quo is also non existent, in fact it’s rewarded – that is how many survive in local government.
Councils are also burdened by the addiction of their political masters in state governments to cost shifting and over regulation. You wonder why you have to pay for parking meters at the beach or shopping centre. The answer is often because some genius in state government decided it was a good idea for councils to have to register your cat or count the weeds in your local park, without giving them one extra dollar to do these jobs.
I favour a carrot and stick approach to drive reform of councils at the grass roots level and holding State Governments more to account for the burdens they place on local government.
Councils should be rewarded for getting things right - a bit like the old national competition payment process. They should also not be rewarded for sitting on their hands and failing to make improvements that will save rate payers money and improve the quality of local services and facilities.
I think local government can be doing a lot more in our communities. They could even take over many of the responsibilities of our states, such as housing. This is where amending our Constitution to provide for the Commonwealth to directly fund councils could offer some ‘change you can believe in’.
However, the quid pro quo must be a comprehensive reform agenda, driven at the local level, rather than mandated on high. We should set timetables for such reforms to be delivered and allocate funds, in particular additional funds and federal funds, to those councils who have decided to get their act together.
Labor’s answer has been simply to throw more borrowed money at councils and look the other way when it comes to the failure of the largely Labor states to implement any real reform programme.
Such reform also does not have to come at the expense of local representation. In metropolitan areas the ratio of representation varies from 1 councillor for every 3306 people in Ashfield in Sydney to 35,412 people in Brisbane City Council. I suspect the right balance is somewhere in between.
If the community wishes to retain the number of Councillors they have looking after their interests, that’s fine. Bigger Councils do not have to mean radical reductions in the number of councillors who are available to take the call from their constituents. After all that is what keeps local government local. They just may turn up to fewer town halls.
At the end of the day, locals must and will decide.
What I observed of my father and the many others like him since, who serve on our local councils, continues to give me confidence about the future of local government. In short, Dad was a local government true believer. I’m pleased to say his son feels the same way.
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