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Local government in Australia less
powerful than in other countries
By Nick Swift
4 October 2003: The constitution of Australia delineates the powers and responsibilities of the federal government, including trade and foreign relations, defence, immigration, taxation, postal services, and so on. All areas not so assigned fall to the states and territories, but in instances of conflict, the law of the Commonwealth (federal state), needless to say, prevails. The constitution can only be changed by a national referendum, the conditions of which are difficult of realisation. Since Australia became a country, only eight proposals have been accepted out of the more than 40 submitted to referendum.
The organisation of state governments parallels that of the Commonwealth (the Federal Government), but with jurisdiction over matters such as transport, health, police services, utilities, education, housing and local government. The states (and the Northern Territory) thus have complete power and discretion when it comes to creating all forms of local government and determining the nature and degree of the powers conferred on them.
Some state constitutions acknowledge local government. Others do not (as the national one does not). In each case, the mandates of local councils are contained in comprehensive local government acts. (The exception is the Australian Capital Territory, which has no local government.)
Altogether there are over 850 local government bodies, whether called cities, districts, municipalities, towns, boroughs or shires. They have elected councils, and their powers and responsibilities vary greatly, but typically encompass the usual subjects of planning and building, maintenance of roads and sewers, and regulation of parks and various public facilities. In the Northern Territory, it does not oversee town planning, and in that respect its local government is unique. On the other hand, in only three of the six states does local government deal with water and drainage. Brisbane stands out as the exception in the scope of its local governments duties.
Local government in Australia has a much narrower range of functions than in most other countries. The past decade (the decade of the nineties), however, was one of great change in these respects, and those changes are continuing.
The National Office of Local Government is the branch of the Commonwealth government charged with managing relations with the third tier of government in Australia. Among its responsibilities are paying the Financial Assistance Grants that began in the mid-1970s, as well as specific purpose grants to foster local government participation in a range of Commonwealth undertakings, including care for children and the aged and services to indigenous people.
The difficulty is that this money is not enough to meet the radically expanding responsibilities (to include culture and recreation, care for the environment and urban planning, for example) of local government. Its cut of the Commonwealth financial pie has actually been shrinking. That has meant increased dependence on the old sources of revenue, such as property rates and charges for services.
As creations of the states, it is only in their relationships with those states, and their success or otherwise in winning the necessary degree of autonomy from them, that Australian local governments have any hope of getting what they need. As it is, they have actually had to take money from areas such as maintenance of roads and other basic infrastructure in order to finance the new things they have to do. The Commonwealth government has attempted to alleviate this obviously unviable situation with a $1.2 billion Roads to Recovery programme, with more, probably, to come. Moreover, in the course of the inquiries that led it to take that action, the Commonwealth discovered that the states had been passing additional costs on to local governments, even as they were cutting back on grants to local councils, especially since the Financial Assistance Grants program began. On top of that, certain states have tried to get money from local councils by means of levies and limits on rate increases that have no discernible formulae.
Some lay the blame for this predicament on what would appear to be an obvious lack of coordination among and within the various levels of government.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) came as a result of the coming-together of state and territory associations as long ago as 1947. It represents local government in a number of contexts, including the Council of Australian Governments. That being the case, how could the uncomfortable status of local government in Australia today have come about? In a number of these contexts the ALGA is only an observer, albeit with the right to participate in discussion. In others, however councils of ministers being the most crucial it has no seat at all. It is, however, in precisely those forums that Australian local governments want and need a role, and it is in them that the state and territory officials refuse to acknowledge the validity of that need.
Local governments have to make do with talking, through their state associations, to state and territory representatives about everything that interests both sides. One experiment in recent years occurred in Tasmania, where state governments undertook to liaise with councils individually or in groups in the form of partnership agreements, with the aim of enhancing performance in planning and delivery of some important services.
A recent Local Government National Report included an advocate and leader for the community and an information broker among the functions of local government in Australia.
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