May 7, 2013

Wise counsel encourages ratifying our councils – Opinion – Daily Telepgraph

When the people of Penrith in Sydney’s west were struggling with crowded local roads and long commutes behind the wheel of their cars, the Federal Government and Penrith City Council stepped in to provide a solution. Right by the railway station, a car park was built so that locals could park for free and take a train instead. When the City of Canada Bay wanted to give children a top-class oval to learn to kick the footy or play cricket,  the council and Federal Governments partnered up to rebuild Drummoyne Oval to international standard.  Today it hosts televised first-class sporting events and is now recognised as one of the best sporting fields in the country. A year ago, I was honoured to open Mudgee’s brand-new 10,000-seat Glen Willow Regional Sports Complex and join league fans from all over NSW who had turned out to watch the Country versus City Origin match. That magnificent stadium, with its 1,000 seat undercover grandstand, was made possible through a partnership between the Federal Government and Mudgee’s Mid-Western Regional Council.

Local and Federal Government partnering up to build community infrastructure and strengthen local economies is something that’s been commonplace for at least 40 years. 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 say ‘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 dealt with.

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.