May 11, 2013

Partnerships vital for strong communities – Opinion – Fraser Coast Chronicle

When the people of Hervey Bay wanted a community centre and regional gallery, the Fraser Coast Regional Council approached the Commonwealth. Australia was dealing with the effects of the Global Financial Crisis so the Commonwealth backed jobs and supported the council’s multi-million dollar project, providing a home for at least 20 community services, a modern regional gallery and child care facilities. It was a similar story when locals wanted a better clubhouse and amenities building for Football Hervey Bay. The council received direct support from the Commonwealth to build a new clubhouse that will serve the community for years to come.

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.