Where to start? Featuring the historic return of the Australian Council of Local Government (ACLG), the largest National General Assembly in 29 years, and our very own Jonathan-Carr West kicking off the first panel on the Future of Local Government, sticking to a word count in our NGA 2023 summary is certainly a challenge!
The future of local government – Jonathan Carr-West
Opening the first panel of the 4-day conference, LGIU CEO, Jonathan Carr-West, spoke on the Future of Local Government with Nick Moraitis, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians.
Introducing the international perspective, Jonathan commented that “While every council is unique, there are some common problems facing them – financial sustainability, public services, trust and participation, climate, and clarity of purpose”.
Demonstrating the shared challenge of finance models faced by local government around the world, the panel contribution introduced 2 recent LGIU research outputs – the State of Local Government Finance Survey 2023 and the funding systems for local government – international comparisons.
On the State of Local Government Finance Survey 2023, an annual produced by the LGIU, Jonathan’s revelation that only 14% of English Councils are confident in the sustainability of local government finance, demonstrated the real urgency over addressing sustainable local government finance.
So how can local government finance be different?
A question posed to Council Chief Executives from Australia, Ireland and the UK in our recent Global Local Executive Panel, Jonathan referenced our recent research from Local Democracy Research Centre on international examples of funding systems for local government.
Produced with the University of Northumbria, this whole-systems approach to local government finance looks at several different countries to build our understanding of the different ways local services can be financed, and identify the most effective ways to resource local democracy. With our first report available below, sign-up to the LGIU to stay in the loop with upcoming reports on local government finance systems in Germany, Italy and Japan.
Underlining the array of policy briefings and research from the LGIU on local government finance, Jonathan highlighted the underlying issue – a lack of autonomy for local government.
But what can local government do next?
“There is no magic bullet to any of this. Lobbying state government can and, in the case of ALGA and the ACLG, does work, but we need to push the boundaries of self-determination at every opportunity. To do that, local government collectively needs to work from and learn from other Councils around the world.”
A point remarked upon by the Governor General in the opening ceremony of the NGA, Jonathan urged the delegates at the largest ever NGA to tell that story of what local government does to other tiers of government and communities – and to develop that shared vision of place so every part of the community is engaged.
“Only local government can do that. Local government’s strength comes not just from lobbying state and federal government, but from drawing in communities”.
Moving on to the Q&A discussion, the first question on the direction of travel in local government relations looked to the UK context, wherein incremental devolution and centralisation occur simultaneously to show that identifying directions of travel are difficult to pinpoint. Instead, the true test of the state’s trust and perspective of local government is whether financial rules are still set from the centre.
“Devolution without the finance powers is not autonomy, it’s delegation. Councils operate at their best when they harness and facilitate the power of communities.”
Finally, responding to another audience question on how council can diversify sources of income in the context of rate-capping in New South Wales and Victoria, Jonathan pointed to the dangerous example of Woking Council in the UK.
An example which proved the talk of the town at the conference, for those unfamiliar Woking Council made international headlines for its recent Section 114 (default on debt).
But instead of querying the nature of Woking’s investments, the real question is what forced Woking down the track of commercialisation and expanding financial revenue? Again, the lack of financial autonomy and cases like Woking tells us that where we see problems is precisely where we need to open up.
Reflections on the ACLG from Jonathan-Carr West
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) national general assembly was immediately followed by the inaugural meeting of the ACLG. This is a forum that brings local government together with the Prime Minister and key cabinet members. It’s not exactly new, it was established by Anthony Albanese when he was Local Government Minister in the Rudd government back in 2008, but it was abolished when Labour lost power.
Now the Albanese administration has bought it back: as the Minister responsible joked, “it didn’t take much to persuade the boss to do something that was his idea in the first place”. Nonetheless, its revival represents a significant victory for ALGA who have lobbied hard for it.
The key test of such initiatives, however, is whether they offer a genuine opportunity for engagement, there’s always a risk that they remain a tick-box exercise and we certainly don’t need another forum in which we can be ignored by ministers.
It’s a seat at the table but with 500 people in the room, it’s a pretty big table.
But it also came across as a pretty serious engagement.
The Prime Minister spoke at the dinner the night before and at the opening of the event.
Half a dozen cabinet ministers were at the dinner. A similar number were on panels throughout the event; all taking questions – often quite challenging ones – from the audience.
I tried to remember when the Prime Minister in the UK last addressed the LGA conference. I couldn’t. I tried to remember when I last saw multiple cabinet ministers putting themselves up to be challenged by representatives of local government. I couldn’t.
In the end, the value of the ACLG will be in how far it enables a two-way conversation between local and federal government and how much difference this makes to decisions made. That’s not a given. A sense of being marginalised by national government is pretty much universal across all the local government jurisdictions LGIU works in and Australia has the additional complication of state governments under whose aegis local government falls.
But mood music matters, and statements of intent matter. From a United Kingdom perspective, it looks like a pretty enviable start.
Reflections on the Voice Panel – Dr Ed Wensing
On Day Two of the NGA Panel: A Conversation about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
The Panel comprised the following local government representatives:
- Mayor Ross Andrews, Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council, QLD
- Mayor Matthew Ryan, West Arnhem Regional Council, NT
- Cr Esma Livermore, Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council, NSW
- Mayor Phillemon Mosby, Torres Strait Island Regional Council.
Cr Linda Scott, the President of the ALGA introduced the Panel discussion by explaining that the ALGA had been invited by the Australian Government to nominate four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives from local governments to be part of the Government’s Referendum Engagement Group for Enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Constitution. The President explained that when she called for nominations for representation on this advisory group, their views on the Voice were not sought. The following people were selected on the basis of volunteering to be on the Reference Group and to represent the diversity of local government across the country.
To put this panel discussion into context, the proposal to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament into the Australian Constitution arises from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was given to the people of Australia at the conclusion of the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention held at Uluru in May 2017. When the Albanese Government was elected in May 2022, Anthony Albanese in his victory speech on election night gave a strong commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. The Uluru Statement contains three key elements for resolving the outstanding grievances the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are seeking to redress, and they are Voice, Treaty and Truth. The primary reason why the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are seeking to have the Voice inserted into the Constitution is because they want structural change in the way matters affecting them are dealt with by governments. The key issue with former representative bodies established at the national level is that they have been abolished at the whim of governments, and there has been no consistency or continuity in such arrangements. This Panel discussion took place while the necessary legislation for the Constitutional amendment was still before the federal Parliament.
Each of the four panellists spoke in support of the Voice being inserted into the Constitution and appealed for support from the wider local government community.
Mayor Ross Andrews from Yarrabah in far north Queensland said that the Voice is about the possibilities it presents, not the negatives. Let’s work together because the Aboriginal people in his community want to be involved in decisions that affect their lives. Mayor Andrews also talked about the fact that there have been several advisory or representative bodies at the national level over recent decades, but that they had all been abolished or rescinded at the whim of governments. Mayor Andrews said it was time for more permanent and transparent arrangements to be put in place, such that governments are able to consult with a representative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body at the national level on matters affecting them.
Mayor Matthew Ryan from West Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory talked about the isolation and lack of adequate services in many communities across the Northern Territory. Mayor Ryan also observed that the Northern Territory intervention staged in the late 2000s did very little to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Territorians and that such actions by the Commonwealth would not have been constitutionally possible in any of the States.
Councillor Esma Livermore from Queanbeyan-Palerang (which neighbours the Australian Capital Territory) played a video which recalled the various declarations that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have made over recent decades and why the Uluru Statement was given to the people of Australia. Councillor Livermore noted that it was time to stop kicking the tin can of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution down the road. It is important to listen to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are saying and it’s about setting up an ongoing process of listening.
Mayor Phillemon Mosby is from Masig Island in the Torres Strait, one of the smallest and lowest islands that is facing significant challenges arising from the impacts of climate change. Mayor Mosby noted that the late Eddie Koiki Mabo was right to assert the continuing connection and ownership of the Torres Strait Islanders to their lands and to their laws and customs. Mayor Mosby said that the Torres Strait Islanders are a minority within a minority, but that their voice also needs to be heard. He said what happened in the past can’t be corrected, but we can provide for a better future, and that providing a national Voice to the Parliament in the constitution will be a significant step toward better outcomes for the Torres Strait Islander peoples in the long term.
The Business Papers for the NGA included a motion from Brimbank City Council in Victoria which called on the NGA to acknowledge the Australian Government’s support of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through a Voice to Parliament and recognises what the Uluru Statement and the Voice to Parliament will mean for Australia’s First Nations peoples and the broader Australian community. Following debate on the floor of the Assembly, the motion was passed with a clear majority of votes from attending delegates.
So, if you happened to miss the 4-day conference in Canberra, what is certain is that both recognition of the challenges faced, and the urgency to tackle them going forward, is an understanding and virtue found in every level of local government across Australia.
Finally, the LGIU team on the ground would like to offer our gratitude to the ALGA for the generous hospitality shown throughout the conference, as well to all the Chief Executives, Mayors and Councillors who stopped by for a chat with Jonathan, Thomas and Ed!
Missed your chance to drop by the LGIU booth and say hello? Drop Thomas an email at thomas.lynch@lgiu to arrange a chat with LGIU Australia.