May 8, 2013

Think local for referendum – Opinion – Western Australian

When the City of Swan came forward with a creative plan to develop the Swan Regional Riverside Park, the Federal Government partnered with them to achieve a great environmental and cultural outcome. It was the time of the GFC and the project would create jobs and leave a legacy for the region’s swelling population. It was a similar story when the City of Armadale wanted to raise to international standard a regatta centre at Champion Lakes.  With help from the Federal Government, the centre is now one of the best in the country and is a training ground for Olympians and other elite athletes. And then in Derby, when the local Shire of Derby /West Kimberley wanted to improve the local economy and keep tourists in the region for longer, it did a deal with the Federal Government to build a new tourist and information centre that would offer jobs for Indigenous school leavers and careers in tourism.

Local and Federal Government partnerships have been commonplace for at least 40 years. They help build community infrastructure and strengthen local economies. It would probably come as a surprise then to most Australians to discover that this financial relationship between the Federal and Local Government is not actually acknowledged in our Constitution.  That is because the Constitution was drafted more than a century ago when Australia was a very different place. In those days, we were a collection of separate colonies. People rarely travelled far from home, given that the horse and cart was the main form of transport. The tasks of those earliest councils were little more than maintaining local roads and collecting rubbish which they funded via property rates.

In 2013, councils are vastly different to those that existed at Federation. No-one thinks there’s anything odd these days about them providing childcare, aged-care, employment and disability services, swimming pools, sporting fields or local roads. These days, some of this infrastructure development and service delivery is made possible by the Federal Government partnering with local government.

For example, in 2009 the Commonwealth partnered with local government to deliver the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, to keep jobs in local communities and build lasting infrastructure during the Global Financial Crisis. Together, we funded over 6,000 community projects such as roads, bridges, sporting centres, libraries. That’s in addition to the $1.75 billion we’ve put directly into council roads across the country over the past three years through the Roads to Recovery scheme.

It’s important the Commonwealth is able to keep investing securely into the future and that’s exactly what including Local Government in the Constitution is about. It is about saying ‘yes’ to retain important community benefits.  It is about saying ‘yes’ to our communities. It’s about acknowledging the modern reality that we have three tiers of government. It is also important that constitutional change does not alter the fact that local governments are created by and are accountable to State Governments.

In 2011, an expert panel led by the Hon. James Spigelman AC QC concluded that financial recognition should be taken to a referendum. It urged the Commonwealth to work with the States to get their support. A Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government was then formed to consider the findings of the expert panel. In its report tabled before the Federal Parliament in March, it agreed it was time to take the issue to a referendum. Uncertainty, it said, was affecting strategic planning and, as local councils are often the biggest single employer in both urban and regional areas, it was ‘in the economic interest of these communities to have this issue resolved’.

We know that for a referendum to succeed it will require bipartisan support and a broad consensus in the community. I have been encouraged with the response to consultations across the political spectrum up to this point. Such a constitutional change will merely confirm existing practice so that it reflects how our system government works. It is a modest change but one that we should all embrace.