When Redland City Council had an ambitious plan for a multi-million dollar upgrade of its historical coastal parklands it came to the Commonwealth for help. Recently, the Commonwealth announced it would back the council plan with $2.5 million in funding for the project, which will greatly enhance the tourism potential of the region. It was a similar story when the council wanted to provide the people of Russell Island with a new sports park that would also serve as a disaster management training facility. The Commonwealth has agreed to contribute $500,000 towards the project from the Regional Development Australia Fund.
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 $5.7 million into Redlands 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.