A few years ago when Lismore City Council wanted to revitalise its CBD with a major upgrade of Woodlark Street, it came to the Commonwealth for help. Australia was warding off the GFC so the Commonwealth supported the multi-million dollar project which would provide jobs and keep the local economy strong. Together, the council and the Commonwealth funded the project giving the local community a legacy for years to come. It was a similar story when the Byron Shire Council had an ambitious plan for sports and arts lovers in the region. It partnered directly with the Commonwealth and built the Byron Regional Sport and Cultural Complex in Ewingsdale.
Local and Commonwealth 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 Commonwealth 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 and local roads. These days, some of this infrastructure development and service delivery is made possible by the Commonwealth partnering with local government.
This occurred in 2009 when 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 more than 6,000 community projects such as roads, bridges, sporting centres and 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 program.
It’s important the Commonwealth is able to keep investing securely in communities and that’s exactly what financial recognition of local government in the Constitution is all about. 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 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 broad consensus in the community. I have been encouraged with the response to consultations across the political spectrum up to this point. Such a change will merely confirm existing practice so that the Constitution reflects how our system of government works. It is a modest change but one that we should all embrace.