Sometimes local government (LG) is referred to as the third tier of government or as a stepping stone to the other tiers – State and Federal. I regard LG as the first tier of government which grew out of communal needs. Indeed, LG developed before the creation of nations or states, including the Melbourne and Adelaide City Councils.
As someone who had a career in both Federal and State Governments, in law and public policy, my firm view is that LG is the most important tier of government. It is the tier closest to the community, to understanding and dealing with key issues and the tier that gets things done. It is also the source of new ideas and policies that originate from community and community needs and aspirations. These are embraced by LG and articulated to other sectors through civic leadership.
Councillors in engaging with and reflecting community and in policy setting for Council, help to make the Council organisation respond to community expectations in a way that does not apply to the other tiers. My 15 years as a Yarra councillor, including 3 terms as Mayor, has re-enforced the importance of this link with community as strengthening the democratic process from bottom up, as well as being a key means of re-invigorating the Council organisation.
The diverse range of Council functions are summarised elsewhere in this publication.
It should be noted that no other organisations have as diverse a range of responsibilities as LG. Although Ministerial decisions on roads and planning get headlines, it is Councils who do the heavy lifting as the quiet achievers in the many areas of services to the public.
On top of the wide range of LG functions, there is the further major task of advocacy for communities – on planning controls responding to the impact of social and other changes, public transport, affordable housing, sustainability, building regulations, or advocacy for those who are disadvantaged by decision and policies of federal and state governments. It seems to me that a lot of Council work arises from policy failures at State and Federal level, where their policies serve sectional interests rather than the broader public interest. This applies to big issues – the failure to address public transport and social housing deficits, and to respond to the imperative of environmental sustainability. Our biggest challenge is how to prompt the other tiers of government to act in the interests of the community as a whole, rather than benefitting sectional interests.
A fundamental role for LG is driving the agenda for other tiers of government. There are many examples where Councils have led policy changes to the State. In my time on Council, these include – bike parking in new developments, increased pensioner rate rebate, improvements in planning and public transport including new designs for accessible tram stops, and funding for the arts and social sectors.
Through engagement with citizens and representing community needs and aspirations, local governments are key to building strong and successful communities and sustaining democracy in our nation.