Australian local governance in 2025

Sunday, 01 November 2015

Roberta Ryan photo
Roberta Ryan

    Roberta Ryan explains the significance of reaffirming the role of local government in communities so it can contribute effectively to national agendas.

    Nothing – big or small – happens in Australia without local government playing some part, though many would not realise it. Australia’s 565 local governments employ nearly 200,000 people, and hold assets with an approximate value of some $350 billion if we factor in roads, buildings and other assets. Annual local government revenues are an estimated $33.5 billion (2.7 per cent of Australia’s GDP). Despite these impressive figures, local government is not considered a “sector” in Australia in the same way as the mining or finance industries, for instance.

    As Australia’s third tier of government, local government is considered the “poor relation” at the table and it is often termed a “creature” of the states as its funding sources are partly provided by state and federal governments. Councils often become responsible for providing certain services or functions after they are “shifted” from state or the Federal Government (often without corresponding funding), and councils also have increased service delivery expectations directed from sometimes transient and diverse communities.

    For the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Local Government (UTS:CLG) and the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government (ACELG), key questions to consider for local governance 10 years hence include how the sector can manage these pressures, creatively work with communities, form new partnerships, and position itself as a respected and sustainable tier of Australian government. Local government is not just another stakeholder; it is a democratically elected arm of government with a deep understanding of its community and is uniquely placed to shape the delivery of services to meet its community’s needs.

    The centre also participates in national discussions about big-picture issues, such as the Commonwealth’s white paper on the reform of the federation deliberations. This issue and local government reform initiatives present opportunities to rethink how governance within councils is defined and undertaken, and how the practice of local governance might be recast to best take advantage of current thinking and developments. Recent centre efforts have focused on practical resources to address these and other key local governance issues.

    For instance, the sector has welcomed the ACELG-funded Why Local Government Matters research aimed at determining community perceptions about local government. Service Delivery Reviews: A How To Manual for Local Government is another resource gaining significant traction within the sector. Other recent practical tools for enhancing local governance are available on ACELG’s website and include:

    • Guidelines for the planning and development of child-care facilities.
    • Model food safety policy template.
    • Strengthening local government revenue for the 21st century paper.
    • Integrated long-term planning: an information and resource manual for rural-remote and indigenous councils.
    • Towards more sustainable street lighting practice note with the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA).
    • Levels of service practice note (with IPWEA).
    • Long-term financial planning practice note (with IPWEA).
    • Attraction and retention of CEOs and senior staff in rural-remote and indigenous local government.
    • Climate adaption manual for local government.
    • Online community engagement toolkit for rural-remote and indigenous local governments.
    • Work with state library exploring regional and co-operative library models.
    • Legal and governance models for shared services in local government.
    • Community chef: a case study in local government innovation (with LG Professionals Australia).
    • The mature-age workforce resource (with LG Professionals Australia).

    I would like to see the significance of local government to people’s everyday lives re-affirmed, and I will ensure the centre continues to support the sector in having an expanded role in the federal system so it can contribute effectively to national agendas and policy settings.

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