Democracy Needs Local Government

Opinion

Sydney Town Hall. Credit: www.sydneytownhall.com.au

 

Local Government is critical for the effective functioning of Australia’s democracy.

The view of local government as being confined to roads, rates and rubbish is long gone, in both practice and in terms of what communities expect. Australians want local government to be responsible for a diverse range of activities in their local community, with planning for the future being among the most important.

We fail to acknowledge the place of local government in Australia’s federal democracy at our peril.

In 2014-15, the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG) asked over 2,000 Australians a variety of questions about Why Local Government Matters.

We asked about the place where they live; what makes people feel good about where they live; and what makes their place ‘tick’ and feel like home. We also asked a range of questions about the role of government: How do people want their services delivered? How do people want to be involved in government? What do people think about local government?

Australians prefer their governments local

One of the main findings of ACELG’s research is that about 75% of Australians surveyed think local government is best able to make decisions about their local areas. This compared with 26% for state government and 2% for the federal government.

These findings show that Local Government is a critical part of Australia’s federal democracy, despite it not being recognised in Australia’s Constitution. Australia’s Federation debate, triggered last year by the release of the issues paper, A Federation for our Future, is focused largely on the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth, the states and territories. We will be badly out of step with the community if we do not broaden the debate to more fully encompass local government.

Australians are strongly connected to their ‘castle’

Australians are very connected to ‘place’, which is a critical finding for planners of our cities.

Eighty-eight percent of Australians strongly or moderately agree they feel at home in the place where they live. There are similarly high levels of agreement when asked whether they feel connected to friends and neighbours (75%), and whether the place where they live has the qualities they value (78%); landscapes that make them feel good (77%); and makes them feel good about themselves (76%).

Local governments matter because of their role as a ‘place-shaper’ and their importance in meeting the needs that most drive people’s attachment to and satisfaction with the area in which they live.

This strongly plays into the local council amalgamation debate, playing out in New South Wales and elsewhere.

Public versus Private

Australians overwhelmingly (93%) want the government, rather than the private sector, to provide services to the community. And they want more than just basic services from government. Over half (61%) disagree that governments should focus on providing only basic services, compared with only 18% that agree.

Contrary to many pundits, Australians think government provides value for money. We found that 45% of respondents do not believe that the private sector delivers the best-value services, while only 26% believe that it does.

There is enormous support for government to deliver services for a healthier and fairer society, and for the proposition that decisions about services should not be made just on value for money.

More tax – for more services

The majority of people surveyed agreed that taxes should pay for more than basic services and many say they are prepared to pay more taxes to receive a broader range of services. This is particularly so when the tax is ‘hypothecated’ – this is bureaucratic jargon for ring-fencing revenue to one spending stream, such as roads, health services or education.

Twenty seven percent of respondents moderately agree with the ‘more taxes’ proposition, while a further 16% of respondents strongly agree. About a quarter of respondents (23%) strongly disagree.

Good local government is critical

We fail to acknowledge the place of local government in Australia’s federal democracy at our peril.

There is enormous support for government to deliver services for a healthier and fairer society, and for the proposition that decisions about services should not be made just on value for money.

According to our research, Australians overwhelmingly (93%) want to be involved with government in making decisions about what services are delivered in their local area.

Why Local Government Matters will be an important resource and reference for Australian local government and other tiers of government, organisations and agencies that work closely with councils. The results will also be invaluable for broader debates about reform of the sector, the role of local government in the federation, and immediate local-level issues such as service delivery, community participation in council decision-making, financial sustainability, and the well-being of local government areas.
 

 

Author(s)
Roberta Ryan

Director, Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government

Countries/Regions
Australia
Published Date
December 7, 2015