Jim Magee is a councillor and the Mayor of the City of Glen Eira in Melbourne’s inner south. Building upon an opinion piece from December 2022, he outlines the positive steps in local government reforms in the state of Victoria, Australia, but urges for more to be done to ensure the sector moves into a more sustainable footing.
Six months ago, I said we needed a major shake-up of local government so we can continue to deliver sustainable services for our communities.
Our long-term sustainability is one of the biggest issues facing local government right now. Cost shifting from other levels of government and rampant inflation are putting our ability to deliver services at risk. That may be tough to hear, but if left unchecked, we’ll be having an even tougher conversation in 10 years time.
The good news is we’ve started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Since I first raised the alarm, we’ve seen real and tangible steps being made toward reform. I’ve had conversations with mayors across the state who all share the same view: that something needs to change, and it needs to change now.
These mayors are all putting massive chunks of their budgets toward covering costs shifted from other levels of government – and that’s before they can even think about upgrading their roads, building new infrastructure or maintaining vital community services. In Glen Eira, we spend a whopping $19m a year – or 10% of our budget – shouldering the cost of delivering services on behalf of other levels of government. That’s roughly the cost of building six state-of-the-art community pavilions.
That’s why at the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) State Council meeting last month, my council put forward a motion calling for action. We called for the MAV to play a major role in having this conversation and advocating on our behalf. And we called for a major review to be led by the Victorian Government. The motion received overwhelming support.
Meanwhile, we’ve been talking to all our partners at the state level – like our MPs and key decision-makers – to advocate for change and deliver a more sustainable future for our councils. Refreshingly, our concerns were taken seriously. They were shared. And in the months since, we’ve seen tangible moves toward progress.
The Victorian Parliament’s upper house will start an inquiry into local government funding and services later this year. The inquiry is set to focus on cost shifting to councils, our ability to deliver the services we’re here to provide and whether we need a different funding model. A parliamentary committee inquiry is a big deal and gives local government the chance to contribute in a meaningful, formal way.
At the same time, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office has announced they will investigate the long-term financial sustainability of local government. Slated for the next 12 months, this will be a major step forward in figuring out just how big the challenges are ahead of us, and what we can do to address them. Five key councils will be examined, giving the Auditor-General a great data set to work with.
These moves are incredibly positive, and there’s a lot more to be done. But for now, at least we’ve stopped kicking the can down the road. Our communities will be stronger for it.