Jun 3, 2013

South-west would benefit from council change in constitution – Opinion – Warnambool Standard

When the Warrnambool City Council had an ambitious plan to build a new arts and community centre it came to the Commonwealth for help.

We were investing in communities to support jobs during the Global Financial Crisis so the Commonwealth backed the project to keep the local economy strong and deliver a great community asset. The magnificent Lighthouse Theatre is the result.

It was a similar story when the council wanted to build the Rail Trail Boardwalk along low lying areas between Warrnambool and the Port Fairy Rail Trail. It partnered with the Commonwealth to build the boardwalk creating a recreational legacy for the future.

The fact is the Commonwealth has been investing directly in local councils for at least four decades. The Roads to Recovery program in the last five years alone has pumped $1.6 million into Warrnambool City Council for road building and repairs. Then there are the many other billions that flow to councils across the country for projects and services that help build local economies and community infrastructure such as upgrades to town halls, new sports fields, parks, swimming pools, bike and pedestrian paths and arts, community and tourist centres.

It would probably seem odd to most Australians then that this financial relationship between local governments and the Commonwealth is not actually mentioned in our Constitution. That is because when our Constitution was signed on 1 January 1901, Australia was a very different place. Keeping streets clear of garbage and the roads well-graded for horse and carriages was the prime job of a local council. They were little more than an administrative tool of State Governments to manage the most basic of services.

Skip forward 112 years, click onto your local council’s web-site, and you’ll see the enormous range of services they provide these days. There are childcare and employment services, aged-care and disability programs, arts festivals, business incentive schemes, tourist services…the list goes on and on.

Located right in the heart of the communities they serve, no-one could logically argue that local councils aren’t best placed to provide these services. It’s therefore hardly surprising that many of those activities have been funded for many years, at least in part, by the Commonwealth.

So it is now time for our Constitution to recognise the reality of local government in the 21st century. When voters visit their polling booth this September, they will be invited to vote ‘yes’ to 17 additional words to our existing constitution. Here they are in italics:

  • Financial assistance to States and local government bodies.
  • During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State.

State Governments are and will stay responsible for local councils. The referendum, if passed, will not in any way change this arrangement.  What it seeks to do is formally acknowledge the fact that council services and activities from time to time receive Commonwealth help.

It is a simple piece of national housekeeping that will enshrine the Australian people’s right to benefit from the funding programs that help keep our towns and suburbs strong and connected. This is particularly important for those who live in regional Australia. While I have many differences of opinion with Coalition Local Government spokesperson Barnaby Joyce, on this referendum issue we will unite to campaign for a “Yes” vote.